Buffalo Police Officer Jorge I. Melendez got caught overseeing a major marijuana-growing operation four years ago.
Police Commissioner Daniel Derenda and other department officials were so offended by Melendez’s behavior that he was immediately fired in May 2012.
Now it is going to cost the city nearly $200,000 in back pay to Melendez because the Buffalo Police Benevolent Association succeeded in winning a grievance arguing that due process – a contractually required disciplinary hearing – was denied.
Melendez’s back pay represents the 26 months during which his case was pending before he pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court last August. At that point, he would have been automatically fired because of the guilty plea.
And while the city believes it will be successful in a planned appeal of the arbitrator’s ruling, the PBA says Melendez could have been quickly fired through an expedited arbitration process and the issue of back pay avoided, if only he had been left on the payroll for a short period of time to let due process play out.
“We don’t want this kind of person on the job; neither does the mayor nor the commissioner. Criminals and drug dealers cast a stain upon all the good police officers,” PBA President Kevin Kennedy said Friday, explaining that the union grievance was not about defending Melendez, but protecting contractual rights and heading off a possible lawsuit from the terminated officer, if the union had not filed the action.
But police sources say departmental charges are always put on hold until the criminal case against an officer is resolved because of issues regarding the Fifth Amendment and self-incrimination. So had Melendez not been fired, the sources explained, he would have been suspended with pay under the union contract and would have collected the same $200,000 that the arbitrator now says he is owed.
In defending Derenda, Mayor Byron W. Brown said, “Due to pending litigation we cannot comment at this time, but we expect that a court will rule in the city’s favor.”
Even arbitrator Jeffrey M. Selchick, in his ruling, noted Melendez’s criminal activities and said Derenda’s course of action was “reasonable and well founded,” though it violated the contract.
In citing the contractual obligation for an impartial hearing to determine the officer’s departmental fate, Selchick stated:
“As noted, the above language brooks no exception based on the commissioner’s perception, no matter how reasonable and well founded, that the evidence of an officer’s wrongdoing is overwhelming and termination fully justified. Hence the arbitrator finds … while the commissioner’s perception of the grievant’s wrongdoing was reasonable and well founded, the procedures which the parties agreed they would follow did not permit the commissioner, as he did, to summarily discharge the grievant.”
Selchick ordered the city to pay Melendez $195,507.24.
Derenda fired Melendez after he was arrested by federal agents and state police on May 31, 2012, for running an operation with more than 1,000 marijuana plants growing in a South Park Avenue warehouse he owned. With four harvests a year, the plants generated about $40,000 annually that allowed Melendez to live a lifestyle that he could otherwise not afford, the prosecution said, in citing apparent greed as his motivation.
Authorities said Melendez sometimes would visit the warehouse on duty and in uniform to check on the plants.
During the arbitration over the back pay, Buffalo Corporation Counsel Timothy A. Ball and Assistant Corporation Counsel Mary B. Scarpine argued that the city had a “compelling governmental interest to ensure that members of its police force do not engage in large-scale manufacturing of an illegal substance” and that Derenda had “no option but to immediately terminate Mr. Melendez’s employment.”
The city also argued that Melendez was “the epitome of a faithless servant” and under that doctrine not “entitled to recover compensation.”
In January, Melendez was sentenced to five years in federal prison by U.S. District Judge William M. Skretny, which he is serving at McKean Federal Correctional Institution in Lewis Run, Pa. His release date is June, 22, 2018.