Public Safety

Black officer - and Cedar Rapids police union leader - speaks up for peers

E.J. Merriweather points to himself as proof racism isn't an issue on force

Cedar Rapids Police Officer E.J. Merriweather, photographed Oct. 28 at the department's headquarters in southwest Cedar
Cedar Rapids Police Officer E.J. Merriweather, photographed Oct. 28 at the department’s headquarters in southwest Cedar Rapids, is the president of the officers’ union in addition to being a patrol officer. “We don’t fix the whole world, just the problem in front of us at the time. I don’t think that philosophy has changed over the years, but I do think the number and types of problems we are asked to confront has definitely changed. There are far more in variety and volume than there where 27 years ago,” he said on an interview. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
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CEDAR RAPIDS — E.J. Merriweather says the majority of his day is spent talking with people in the community and solving problems they face because he sees his job as a police officer as helping people.

He describes himself as an “average guy” who has no aspirations to promote to a rank in the Cedar Rapids Police Department because climbing the ladder would take him farther from the job he’s meant to do.

“You’re either meant to be (in law enforcement) or not … There’s no in between,” Merriweather, 52, said during an interview with The Gazette. “We don’t fix the whole world, just the problem in front of us at the time. I don’t think that philosophy has changed over the years, but I do think the number and types of problems we are asked to confront has definitely changed. There are far more in variety and volume than there where 27 years ago.”

Perspective on racism

Merriweather, a Black officer, didn’t hesitate to share his perspective of the department and protests in the city and nation over racial injustice.

He flatly says he doesn’t believe systemic racism exists in law enforcement — locally or nationally. He understands that’s the perception but insists it’s not real. That said, he does believe racism exists.

“I think there are now and always will be racists in every facet of human society,” Merriweather said. “It is part of the tribalism built into our DNA. As long as we have a capacity to delineate between us or them, we will have racists.”

The key is to not act on that “implicit bias” but instead act on facts of the situation, said Merriweather — an officer with numerous certifications in field training and dealing with hazardous materials, bombs, drugs, arson and firearms.

Merriweather said the Cedar Rapids department doesn’t have a racism problem, and pointed to himself as an example.

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He is the first-ever Black union steward elected in 1997 and then elected in 2016 as president of the Cedar Rapids Police Bargaining Union. In that role, he represent all officers in wages and benefits negotiations and other issues, as well as being the spokesperson for the union board.

Chief Wayne Jerman said Merriweather has a difficult job to do and does it well. He has to represent all the officers below the rank of sergeant and also deal with the administration.

“I have a great relationship with E.J.,” Jerman said. “He’s very knowledgeable of the contract. We were having regular monthly meetings before COVID.”

Jerman said it’s not unusual to hear positive feedback about Merriweather from his patrol area on the southeast side. Just a few weeks ago, someone called to let him know what a “great job” Merriweather did in handling a situation.

“He’s always fair, willing to listen and take your phone call,” Officer Josh Carter, who is secretary of the union, said. “I’ve been with the department for 12 years and E.J. is who I look to for guidance. On a personal level, I know I can call him to vent. He is fair to everyone and treats everyone the same.”

City Council member Dale Todd, chair of the city’s Public Safety and Youth Services Committee, said it “speaks volumes” about Merriweather’s character when the officers select someone of color to be their union leader.

“Being a police officer is one of the hardest jobs in America right now and being an African American officer is even harder,” Todd said.

Department’s diversity

Merriweather points out that he isn’t the only Black officer in the department. There are three others — one a woman — and there have been others throughout the years who have left or retired. He acknowledges the majority of the 97 patrol officers are white, but notes the department has become more diverse over the years. It was the first in Iowa to have a female investigator many years ago and now there are four. There also are Hispanic and Asian officers, and several gay officers.

View on protests

Being a Black man hasn’t been particularly helpful on the job or during the Advocates for Social Justice and the Black Lives Matter protests this summer, Merriweather noted.

“People tend to see all officers as blue,” Merriweather said. “I don’t necessarily have a better rapport on calls. A lot of the people in the communities where we work the hardest have a generalized mind-set that the cops are out to get you and it doesn’t matter whether they’ve ever committed a crime because they’ve been told that all their lives.”

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During the protests, he was on standby as part of the bomb squad for any possible issues, which didn’t happen.

“I was proud of how people around here behaved — as an officer and a Black man,” he said. “I think Iowa is somewhat insulated from the national problems. Iowa people are the most decent people around.”

He also viewed the protests against the system as “insulting because it ignores those who follow the rules.”

Merriweather views the inequities as a failure to elevate people from their economic situation.

“That is also not based on race but socio-economic standing,” Merriweather said.

There are a disproportionate number of poor African-Americans, but he doesn’t know if it’s because of race or their socio-economic factors — employment, education, income and ZIP code.

Father’s path

Merriweather doesn’t pretend to know how to resolve it, but he believes people can change their paths as his father, Ernie Merriweather, did many years ago.

His father grew up in Chicago and lived in Cabrini-Green, the infamous housing project plagued with violence.

His father had some trouble with the law in his youth, which wasn’t fully disclosed to his son, but he decided it was time for a change and he left the city. He moved to Waterloo, where his son was born.

Merriweather said his dad became a tailor and taught the trade at Hawkeye Community College in Waterloo. When he moved the family to Cedar Rapids, he became a member of the Civil Rights Commission and ended up working at various companies in human resources, including Rockwell Collins — now Collins Aerospace.

“If you behave the way you’re are supposed to — you can do better,” Merriweather said.

‘Behavior issue’

One thing people ignore about an officer’s job, in all the discussion about racial injustice, he said, is that law enforcement doesn’t initiate the call for service or control what happens.

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“That’s up to the person I’m talking to,” Merriweather said. “I don’t make the call. I get a call from dispatch and then show up. I don’t show up and say ‘I’m going to shoot somebody’ or ‘I’m going to get out my baton and beat somebody.’ I show up and say ‘Hey what’s going on here. What’s the problem?’ The other party — suspect — controls what I do because I react to them.”

Merriweather said if the offender stops what he or she is doing or doesn’t fight officers, then nobody is harmed.

He points out that volatile incidents around the country involve only a “few” law enforcement officers out of over 330,000 who have shot, and sometimes killed Black people without justification or under questionable circumstances. But to say it’s a systemic issue, he said. is wrong.

Merriweather contends it’s a “behavior issue.” Some think it’s acceptable to behave a certain way, even if that isn’t appropriate.

Merriweather refused to “Monday morning quarterback” those officers’ shootings.

Not all are as simple to understand as the 2015 incident involving a Black man, Walter Scott, running away from a white officer, Michael Slager, in South Carolina. Slager shot Scott multiple times in the back as he ran away.

“Obviously, that’s a homicide,” Merriweather said.

Officers not following the rules or doing something wrong or “stupid” reflects on all law enforcement, he said. If they do something wrong, there should be consequences.

In the killing of George Floyd, which led to this summer’s wide-scale protests, Merriweather said he doesn’t know what kind of training Minnesota police officers receive on use of force — but in Cedar Rapids, kneeling on someone’s neck isn’t allowed. If an officer did that, he or she would face outrage from fellow officers and possibly discipline from command staff, he said.

Merriweather said there have been only two incidents in the 27 years he has been with the department where Black individuals have been shot by police.

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The most recent was Jerime Mitchell, a Black man, being shot by a white officer, Lucas Jones, who was fired in June for not following rules and department procedures in a different traffic stop.

Merriweather said he couldn’t comment about that because the department is being sued by Mitchell, who was paralyzed after being shot three times as he tried to drive away from Jones during a traffic stop.

Jones also has a pending appeal over his firing with the city’s Civil Service Commission.

The other incident was in 2016. Markell Bivins, a Black man, was stabbing his ex-girlfriend, Raelynn Finn, and wouldn’t stop when officers arrived Sept. 12, 2016, at the Valley High Apartments, 1735 Edgewood Road NW, Merriweather said. Two officers, both white, tried to stop Bivins as he was stabbing the woman, and one of the officers shot him in the buttocks as he fought them and continued to attack Finn.

According to police, the other officer shot Bivins in the chest, which hit his heart and killed him, because he was still armed with the knife and wouldn’t stop fighting the officers.

The Iowa Attorney General’s Office said the use of deadly force was reasonable in the situation because the officers were trying to save Finn and their own lives.

Comments: (319) 398-8318; trish.mehaffey@thegazette.com

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