By jeanne starmack
Mayor Jim Melfi and other city leaders said they wanted to send a “strong message” when they decided on discipline for a patrol officer who was suspended after police broke up a teenage drinking party in his garage.
Officer Larry Neely, who has been on paid leave since the Feb. 8 party, will be given a “last chance” agreement and placed on 20 days’ unpaid leave, Melfi said Thursday.
“We’re sending a strong message to him and others — we have to do things the proper way here,” he said.
Melfi, Police Chief Jeff Palmer and Director of Public Services Jerry Lambert met in recent days with legal counsel to discuss Neely’s fate. The final decision on discipline rested with Melfi.
Melfi said the two-year agreement includes language that allows for Neely’s immediate termination if he does not adhere strictly to police department policies and procedures.
“These are pretty severe measures,” Melfi said.
Melfi said discipline for police officers is progressive. Neely had previous violations, according to Palmer, who said that to call his disciplinary record “extensive” is fair. A 10-day suspension was for not answering two calls one night.
Neely was not home when the party took place. Questions in an internal investigation included whether he knew about the party or other parties that police believe took place there.
“You have young people in the family. You have to be aware that these things go on,” Melfi said.
Melfi said termination was too strong for the offense.
He said the city has to have strong grounds for termination because it could be overturned on appeal in court, costing taxpayers legal fees and back pay.
“I’ve never made a rash decision that would cost the city money,” he said.
If an officer were to commit a severe offense, he could be terminated regardless of how many department violations occurred before, he and Lambert explained.
“Circumstances have to be weighed,” Lambert said.
Palmer was not available for comment.
Neely had not signed the agreement as of Thursday morning, but was expected to do so soon. He was represented in the disciplinary process by the Ohio Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, which is Girard police’s union.