End of the watch

Veteran police officer reflects on nearly three decades in the Chico PD

Lt. Rob Merrifield (right) was honored for 28 years of service by then-Mayor Mark Sorensen at the Dec. 6 Chico City Council meeting.

Lt. Rob Merrifield (right) was honored for 28 years of service by then-Mayor Mark Sorensen at the Dec. 6 Chico City Council meeting.

Photo by Howard Hardee

In his current position at the Chico Police Department, Lt. Rob Merrifield is charged with supervising operations in three key areas of the city—downtown, south campus and Bidwell Park—oversees the Target Team, and acts as a liaison with some of Chico’s most valued institutions, like Enloe Medical Center and Chico State.

In a word, it’s a prestigious place to find himself after 28 years with the CPD. But during a recent interview regarding his retirement, Merrifield said he would have happily remained a patrol sergeant until the end of his career.

“The lieutenant thing … it’s an important job and somebody has to do it, but it’s more administrative,” he said. “Patrol sergeant is the ultimate assignment, because you’re still out in the field, still doing that kind of police work, and you’re really connected to your team.

“I’m not complaining, but as far as doing fun stuff and really feeling like a cop, I miss being back out there more.”

Merrifield’s retirement is one of several personnel shifts occurring in the department. Also retiring are Lt. Mike Nelson, current head of the department’s detective bureau, Officer Rob Sheridan and a K-9 named Luna. Nelson has been at the department since 1999; Sheridan since 1994; and Luna is a nine-year veteran of the force.

The retirements coincide with the swearing in of six new officers, a reserve officer and two new chaplains last week. Interviewed by phone, Police Chief Mike O’Brien noted the department has finally reached its full staffing goal of 92 sworn officers—at least until Friday (Dec. 16), when Merrifield leaves. The others will leave by the end of the year, and O’Brien said he hopes to hire officers to fill those vacancies in 2017.

“It definitely puts us in a better position than the department has been in some time,” O’Brien said of the new hires. He described the retirements, though, as “bittersweet.”

In the 1990s, Merrifield became the first motorcycle cop in Chico in half a century.

Photo courtesy of Rob Merrifield

“These guys are my rocks. They’re just so solid, they’ve been here since I joined the department and they’ve really stepped up to fill the gaps we’ve needed in the past few years,” he said. “As sad as I am to see them go, it’s nice to see them walk out in one piece, on their terms and with their heads held high.”

Merrifield has filled many roles in his nearly three-decade career with the CPD; he’s also worked in the department’s now-defunct traffic division, in the patrol unit and detective bureau (as both a rank-and-file officer and supervising sergeant), and as a public information officer. During an interview with CN&R, he delivered a candid overview of his experience and some insight into life as a lawman.

A North State native, Merrifield was born in Red Bluff and raised in “various places out in the woods,” as his father worked for the U.S. Forest Service and as a firefighter. His family eventually settled in Chester, where he graduated from high school. He spent four years in the Navy, where he operated listening systems aboard surveillance planes hunting Russian submarines. He attended Butte College with the goal of becoming a game warden, but eventually decided law enforcement was a better fit.

He began working for the CPD in 1988, and mentioned two other positions he’s particularly proud to have filled—heading up the Chico Police Explorer Post, a program for young people considering careers in law enforcement; and as Chico’s first motorcycle cop in nearly half a century.

“We used motorcycles back in the 1940s and ’50s, but quit until we started again in the ’90s,” he explained. The department still has four motorcycles and staff certified to ride them, but they sit mostly idle with no traffic division.

Merrifield personally owns two motorcycles and rides often outside of work. He’s also an avid cyclist, fly- fisherman and likes to travel, all hobbies he hopes to indulge in during retirement.

When asked how he’s dealt with the psychological impacts of being a police officer, Merrifield said it’s important for cops to maintain friendships with people outside of law enforcement and that he’s always found comfort in his family. His wife, Kimberly, is a Butte County Superior Court judge, and the couple have a son (22) and daughter (19).

“It’s essential to have those people you can share things with, or not share things with, when you need to,” he said.

Merrifield said that, looking back, he has no regrets about his career choice.

“Becoming a police officer is the luckiest thing that’s ever happened to me,” he said. “About once a week, I’ll be getting coffee and someone will walk up and say, ‘Thank you for your service.’ What do you say to that? I always just honestly say, ‘Thanks for letting me do it.’”