Questioned by the panel,Pine Bluff Police Officer Merritt said there had been some citizen complaints made against him but those were unfounded. The hearing for Merritt Wednesday was the fifth day of his suspension, and with the decision of the panel, he will be able to return to work on his next regular shift.
A Pine Bluff Police officer who had been suspended for 10 days for cursing at a rookie officer he was training had his suspension cut in half Wednesday by a three member civilian review board.
Police Chief Ivan Whitfield had suspended Officer Michael Merritt for telling Officer Jessie Valdez to “take his a** to the car” after the officers had responded to a report of a person who had exposed himself in the Jefferson Square Shopping Center in front of Citi Trends.
The review panel, made up of Assistant City Attorney Joe Childers, Pine Bluff City Collector Sharon Johnson and Assistant Fire Chief Ernest Jones, heard about an hour of testimony from Merritt and Whitfield before reaching their decision. They also recommended that Merritt be counseled about his actions.
Merritt said he had told Valdez to turn his body camera off because the incident was over, then told him three times to go to the police car before cursing, which Merritt admitted was wrong. He said he was not aware that a complaint had been filed against him until he received a call from Lt. Edna Butler the next day. He said he also talked to Sgt. Bruce Gee, Capt. Terry Hopson and Assistant Chief Kelvin Sergeant, who asked him why he said what he did to an officer he was training.
“Everybody in the Police Department curses, and all I can do is apologize,” Merritt said. “I don't have a problem being disciplined but I think 10 days is excessive.”
Merritt, who has 12 years of law enforcement experience with three departments, including more than six years at Pine Bluff, was named a Field Training Officer (FTO) in 2013.
Merritt said he was never counseled or reprimanded by his shift commander Lt. Derric Price, or shift Sergeants Jeremy Brown or Brad Vilches. “If I had taken a** out of it, we wouldn't be here,” he said.
Questioned by the panel, Merritt said there had been some citizen complaints made against him but those were unfounded. The hearing for Merritt Wednesday was the fifth day of his suspension, and with the decision of the panel, he will be able to return to work on his next regular shift.
When it was Whitfield's turn, he produced a statement written by Merritt, which said only that Merritt told Valdez to go to the car and didn't write anything about the use of profanity. Whitfield also said statements from two other officers who were on the scene accused Merritt of telling Valdez to “go get your (expletive) a** in the car.”
Regarding the citizen complaints, Whitfield said “people come to you and tell you he has a bad attitude but you can't prove that, but where's there's smoke there's fire.” Whitfield said as a training officer, Merritt was held to a higher standard and received extra compensation for being a training officer.
“I was blown away when I got this report, and my first instinct was to fire him, but I thought about it and knew his family needed the money,” Whitfield said, adding that Merritt's comment affected not only the young officer in training but also the officer's brother, who is an officer in training, as well as the entire shift Merritt is on.
“There was no justification at all,” Whitfield said. “When Chief Sergeant talked to Valdez, he said Merritt had not apologized so I called Valdez into my office and apologized on behalf of the department.” Whitfield said he first decided to give Merritt 30 days off but reduced that to 10 and also removed Merritt as a training officer. “We can't afford to let him continue to train people,” Whitfield said. “It could cost us money.”
In looking through the packet of information the panel was given, Childers noted that both Hopson and Sergeant had recommended that Merritt be given three days off, but Whitfield said those were only recommendations, and as chief, he makes the final decision.
“Ten days is not excessive,” Whitfield said. “What ever I give him I've got to give to everyone else in these circumstances.” Asked by Jones if Merritt was a good officer, Whitfield said, “he's good enough to save.” Merritt got the final word and said he understood he did wrong. “My intention was not to disrespect Valdez,” Merritt said.
“If this panel sees fit to uphold the 10 days I can live with that. I can't do anything about the FTO. I worked hard to do that but there's no way to get back to being an FTO. I'm a liability in their eyes.”