WILKES-BARRE — Kirk Merchel came by his beat by accident, just like he became a police officer more than 25 year ago.
The Wilkes-Barre City Police Department patrolman can be found downtown, often on Public Square.
“It’s funny how this happened,” said Merchel, a veteran of 24 years.
New to the force Merchel had been working the 7 p.m. to 3 a.m. shift when former police chief Gerry Dessoye asked him to switch his schedule to dayside for a bit. Dessoye informed him “some people are coming looking at businesses. ‘Can you come down and kind of clean the place up a little,’” Merchel recalled .
The chief liked what Merchel was doing and one thing led to another. One day led to another and the temporary assignment turned into a sought after post.
“Every year I bid this spot now,” Merchel said. He’s got a good chance on keeping it, seeing that there are only two other officers with more seniority.
Merchel, 50, joined the department full-time in January 1994 after working part-time for Tunkhannock borough for two years.
Police work wasn’t his initial career choice, however. “Honestly, it was accidental,” he said.
While taking lethal weapons training to be certified as an armed security guard he looked into an Act 120 course at the former Lackawanna Junior College for municipal police officers. “And I took that course on my own because I was working two and three jobs at the time,” Merchel said.
He passed and looked for work at a small police department. Tunkhannock hired him. He worked three nights a week and earned $6 an hour. He bought his own gear, except for the department issued firearm.
It was a good place to start. “Up there is was a slower pace and I was able to absorb more,” he said.
From there he applied to Wilkes-Barre, took the civil service exam and was hired. “Joe Coffay was my training officer. He taught me a lot,” Merchel said of Coffay who’s the commander of the department.
The course work, firearms training and knowledge of the law don’t necessarily prepare you for the job. There’s much more.
“It’s hard to even describe,” Merchel said. “You have to have thick skin because being out here you’re going to be called everything. You’re going to get insulted. You’re going to get threats against you. People are going to threaten your family.”
Flexibility helps too.
For me everything’s not just black and white,” Merchel explained. “I look at everything on a case-by-case basis.”
“Not everybody has to go to jail. And I also understand that everybody I deal with is a person first, no matter if you’re a homeless person sleeping on a bench or if you’re the highest paid attorney or doctor.”
The golden rule comes into play, as well.
“I find it’s easier to deal with people if you treat them with respect. When they respect you and things go a lot easier. You treat everybody like they’re a suspect or a criminal they’re going to get defensive,” Merchel said. “Do I cite everybody I catch down here? No. I cut them breaks when I can.”
While on the Square on afternoon last month a store owner walked up to Merchel and told of his predicament. People have been loitering in front of his business and one man who had taken off his shirt could be seen through the storefront windows.
“I can’t tell people keep their shirt on,” Merchel said. But he could move them along.
“I’ve been telling people not to hang around in front of your place and in front of the Kirby Center as much as I can,” Merchel added.
The job has changed and the city is a different place than when he first patrolled it.
A police officer’s job is more difficult today, Merchel added. “They keep making it harder and harder to do your job with case laws and such. You have to keep up on all that.”
Going back 20 plus years, the police radio traffic was minimal on the midnight shift, Merchel said. ” The radio would be dead silent for hours,” he said. “It’s a different world today. It really is.”
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Reach Jerry Lynott at 570-991-6120 or on Twitter @TLJerryLynott.