May 11, 2015
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Jorge L. Melendez was terminated in 2012 after a year-long investigation found that he was supervising a grow operation with over 100 plants. Last August, he plead guilty in a U.S. district court and is currently serving four years in prison for his violations (the minimum sentence is 5-40 years).
It is worth noting that before Melendez worked for the Buffalo Police, he was a drug informant for the FBI. He was caught selling drugs, but the FBI did not have enough evidence to convict him. Instead, they allowed him to work as an informant. The Buffalo Police Department was unaware of his history when they hired him.
In spite of his admission of guilt over the marijuana plants, Melendez was awarded $195,507.24 in back pay because of a technicality in the way he was fired. The Buffalo branch of the powerful police union, the Police Benevolent Association, came to his aid because he was terminated without a disciplinary hearing. As such, an arbitrator ordered the City of Buffalo to pay the incarcerated man for time he never worked. The city plans to appeal the decision.
On its face, this story seems commonplace. Police officers are caught selling drugs all the time. They are often prosecuted and sentenced to prison (this seems to happen more often than convictions for killing innocent people). Rather, what is unique about this case is twofold:
First, in spite of the fact that Melendez was imprisoned for participating in the drug trade, his sentence was less than the federal minimum and far more lenient than others who have sold less.
Because of mandatory minimum sentencing requirements, individuals — often non-violent — have been sentenced to life in prison for selling an infinitesimal fraction of what Melendez was accused of cultivating. This case highlights the persistent reality that there is one set of laws for the people and another for those who rule over them.
This, however, is still relatively old news. Cops are routinely let off the hook for egregious crimes while individuals lives are destroyed for non-violent offenses.
What is more impressive about Melendez’s story is the dedication the police union showed to his case. The Police Benevolent Association is known for defending officers—no matter what they do. The union has stood by officers accused of murder and preaches blind subservience to police at the national level.
The union’s willingness to defend Melendez exposes a clear lack of moral foundation. For all of the union’s grandstanding about law and order, the PBA proved itself more concerned with keeping tabs on department policy and “contracts” than with upholding the nation’s laws—which is supposedly the entire point of having police and why people support them. The Buffalo PBA did acknowledge Melendez’s “wrong-doing,” saying:
“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.”
The Buffalo PBA argued that they were defending Melendez to protect his contract and avoid a costly lawsuit later. Nevertheless, the PBA’s apparent respect for accountability is difficult to take seriously when its various branches consistently demonstrate a lack of regard for keeping officers accountable.
Meanwhile, though non-violent individuals rot in jail for decades, Melendez will be out in 2018—and he will have a stack of money waiting for him upon release.
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