Police officer says he seized driver's gun out of compassion

Police Officer Ivan Melendez, left, consults with Alan Andrews, president of the Lawrence Patrolmen's Association, and his lawyer, Matthew Dwyer, during a break in Melendez's disciplinary hearing on Tuesday. Melendez is accused of seizing a handgun from a driver and taking it home.

LAWRENCE – An 18-year veteran of the Lawrence police force accused of misconduct after seizing a handgun from a driver then taking it home told a disciplinary hearing Tuesday he did so out of compassion.

Officer Ivan Melendez is accused of failing to arrest an alleged drunk driver, seizing his handgun and then taking the weapon home. He told a city-convened disciplinary hearing Tuesday that he let the driver go because he did not want to derail his dream of becoming a cop. Melendez said he then took the driver's gun home “for safe-keeping.”

“It all came down to – and I'm not being funny – I used discretion, I used my heart in this situation,” Melendez told hearing officer Joseph Coffey. “I'm not saying I did everything correctly. I saw a guy down on his luck, sobbing. I gave him a break using the discretion I've used for the last 18 years. That's all it is.... I gave the guy a break. Let's just leave it at that.”

Melendez faces nine misconduct charges, including failing to arrest a drunk driver, failing to file a report about the incident, giving the driver preferential treatment and taking the driver's handgun home rather than turning it in at headquarters.

The driver, Joel Figueroa, is a former auxiliary cop, which raised further questions at the hearing about whether Melendez gave him preferential treatment. The gun, a .40-caliber Smith and Wesson pistol, had 11 bullets in the magazine.

The disciplinary hearing was the second against a Lawrence police officer in less than a week. On Friday, Officer William Green walked out of his closed-door hearing, then described the 16 misconduct charges against him – including leaving a security detail, insubordination and conduct unbecoming an officer – as “tons of crap.” Green is circulating petitions to run for mayor.

Police Chief James Fitzpatrick, who testified at both hearings, has asked Mayor Daniel Rivera to fire both Green and Melendez. Rivera is awaiting recommendations from hearing officer Joseph Coffey before acting, but told both officers when he put them on leave that dismissal is an option. Coffey's reports are due within about two weeks. 

Both men could appeal Rivera's decision to a Civil Service hearing officer.

There were few disagreements about the facts of the incident in Melendez's hearing on Tuesday. Instead, the testimony focused on Melendez's motive in failing to arrest the driver and taking his gun home rather than turning it in, and on whether his actions violated department policy.

The incident occurred on Forest Street just after 6 a.m. on Jan. 21, when Melendez was working an overnight patrol shift and Figueroa was returning home from work as a security guard in Lowell. Lawrence police dispatchers received a call about a man sleeping in his car and sent Melendez.

Melendez said he found Figueroa asleep – with the engine in drive and his foot on the brake -- and ordered him to step out. He said Figueroa became agitated, so Melendez said he handcuffed him and put him in the back seat of his patrol car. Melendez said he did not arrest Figueroa, a detail that is central to his defense because an arrest would have required Melendez to file an incident report, which he did not.

A second officer, Albert Inostroza, was dispatched to Forest Street and found Figueroa's gun in the glove compartment of his car during a search. Melendez testified that he placed the gun in his cruiser and, after having Figueroa's car towed and allowing him to walk down the block to his home on Haverhill Street, drove the gun to headquarters. Melendez testified he placed it in his Silverado pickup truck and later drove the truck home, where he placed the gun in a locker with his 20 others, which he said includes rifles and shotguns.

He said he told Figueroa to come to headquarters four days later, when Melendez said he would consider returning the gun to him. The gun is registered to Figueroa.

“My thought process was, since I didn't arrest or summons him, I could hold the gun for safe-keeping, have him come back (to headquarters) and then take it from there,” Melendez testified.

Instead, Figueroa called his lawyer, Dolores Campbell, who called headquarters asking about the gun and requesting an incident report.

Melendez said he did not know the reason for the call, but after learning about it, approached a superior officer for advice. The officer, Sgt. Robert DiBenedetto, told him to bring Figueroa's gun to headquarters and to write a report.

Matthew Buckley, a lawyer hired by the city to prosecute the case, questioned whether Melendez ever told Figueroa to come to headquarters to pick up the gun. He noted that Melendez held the gun for four days without informing anyone at headquarters about it, then consulted with DiBenedetto, brought the gun in and filed the report only after Figueroa's lawyer began calling about the gun and asking for the report.

“He just cut Figueroa lose, confiscated his gun, didn't inform the city of any of it,” Buckley said. “The city's response is, that's utterly unacceptable behavior.”

Matthew Dwyer, the lawyer for the Lawrence Patrolmen's Association, who is defending Melendez at the union's request, responded that police officers have “considerable discretion” about whether to make arrests. He noted that the gun was lawfully registered to Figueroa and should not be considered evidence – which would have required Melendez to turn it in -- because Figueroa was not accused of a crime.

“He seized the weapon to protect the individual, the public,” Dwyer said. “He brought it home and put it in a safe. He told (Figueroa), 'We'll have a little chat about this incident'.... The only thing he did that's remotely questionable is failing to arrest someone showing signs of intoxication.”

Fitzpatrick testified that the misconduct was more serious. He said an arrest would have allowed the city to begin the process of revoking Figueroa's license to carry, but said Melendez's delay in turning in the weapon made a revocation unlikely.

“It's a very serious offense,” Fitzpatrick said about Melendez's alleged misconduct. “It brought discredit to the police department.”

About a dozen police officers attended the hearing to support Melendez, as did his step-brother, Jaime Melendez, who is the director of the city's office of Veterans' Services. Melendez's mother and step-father, a women he described as his common-law wife and three of their four children also attended. During a break in the hearing, which occurred in the City Council chambers at City Hall, their 5-year-old son walked to a rail separating him from his father, who bent over and kissed him. 

Melendez is the son of Isabel Melendez, a well known leader of the city's Latino community who operates a social service agency for immigrants and the poor on Cross Street. She did not attend the hearing.