It’s a calling so strong that Merchant has come out of retirement to lead the Canton Police Department as its new chief.
Merchant on Thursday formally began his new role as the chief of the department, which has weathered external and internal storms over the past six months.
Merchant, who retired as the police chief from Altamonte Springs, Fla., in September, said he’s looking forward to bringing his passion of serving the public to the Cherokee County seat.
“Public service has been something I’ve thoroughly enjoyed,” he said.
Merchant on Friday will begin meeting with Canton police employees and sworn officers to talk with them about their career aspirations and get a glimpse of how they feel about the agency.
He said he prefers to lead in a participatory style, which involves employees, sworn officers and those in management.
“(The interviews are) an opportunity for me to assess the organizational climate and the level of the job satisfaction of the employees in the agency,” Merchant said. “I really think that based on conversations with
employees and managers, I truly believe they are welcoming this type of leadership.”
Merchant joins the department months after it was shaken by the abduction and murder of 7-year-old Jorelys Rivera.
A report completed by LaGrange Public Safety Chief Louis Dekmar also made public the critical mishaps the department committed in the hours and days after the Canton child was abducted and killed in the River Ridge at Canton apartment complex where she lived.
The report followed the resignation of former Police Chief Jeff Lance.
Merchant said he’s reviewed Dekmar’s report and that he’s been informed the policy revisions and updates recommended have been implemented.
Maintenance worker Ryan McCabe Brunn, 20, pleaded guilty to Rivera’s murder and was sentenced to life in prison without parole, but hanged himself two days after his plea at a state prison in Jackson.
The department also came under the microscope when a video surfaced of City Manager Scott Wood being pulled over by former Canton Police Officer Daniel Henley for speeding and failure to maintain lane after a March Canton City Council meeting.
The video raised questions after the officer, who later resigned, let Wood go without a ticket after turning the audio off when the city manager told the officer who he was.
Henley later reportedly indicated he was caught in the middle of a conflict between Wood and Assistant Chief Todd Vande Zande and accused Vande Zande of doing anything to get the position.
Vande Zande had been serving as the interim chief at the time and was one of 43 candidates for the top position.
Merchant said he is already impressed by the department.
He also said he wants to work with the department’s training coordinator to outline a long-term training plan.
While he said he’d “like to have some flexibility” to provide training for officers, Merchant said he understands he would have to go through the budget process with City Manager Scott Wood before anything is set in stone.
While in Florida, the police chief said he was able to make community policing a big portion of his department’s duties and he wants to bring the same approach to Canton.
Merchant said he wants to focus on a strategic plan that involves bringing in the community and other law enforcement agencies to combat crime.
“Crime has no boundaries, so we also involved the sheriff’s office and citizens who came to the meetings,” he said. “It really worked out well. I think it opened the lines of communications. Anytime you can take advantage of that, your organization is better off in the long run.”
Wood said Merchant “impressed me as being customer-service oriented and committed to establishing performance measures within the department, all while maximizing the overall safety of our city.”
He also said he’d hope to see the department improve its professional credentials.
“He is already invigorating the entire department and I have seen firsthand the enthusiasm with which his leadership has been welcomed throughout the ranks,” he said. “He is very straightforward and will be exactly what is needed for our department and our city.”
Canton Mayor Gene Hobgood said he’s looking forward to working with Merchant and is also eager to see his plans for the department.
“I want to make sure we work toward having the finest police department we can possibly have,” he said.
Merchant served in the United States Marine Corps between 1976 and 1980 where he was assigned to the security detachment for the Presidential Helicopter Squadron.
He joined the Altamonte Springs Police Department in 1980 and has been a commander of the department’s investigations bureau and deputy chief of the management support bureau and the operations bureau.
He was named police chief in 2002.
Merchant obtained a bachelor’s degree in business administration from Rollins College in Winter Park, Fla., in 1984, graduated from the FBI National Academy in 1994 and graduated from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement’s Senior Leadership Program in 1997 and its Chief’s Executive Seminar in 1998.
He obtained a master’s degree in criminal justice from the University of Central Florida in 2002.
Merchant and his wife, Donna, have two adult children and one grandson. He and his wife are also planning to purchase a home in the Canton area.
Merchant said he’s looking forward to getting to know the residents and stakeholders in Canton.
He also said that while he understands the skepticism some may have of the department in the aftermath of the Rivera murder, the department will become more visible in the community.
“I truly believe that while there are some things the department could have done better, the department’s employees are committed to not only their jobs, but are committed to serving the organization and the public,” he said.