CERES — Prosecutors have charged a police officer with misdemeanor assault stemming from an incident in April, Police Chief Art de Werk announced Tuesday.
Christopher Melton, a nine-year veteran of the force, is accused of using excessive force on a suspect during an April 13 incident on the 1600 block of Evans Road. Another officer reported the alleged misconduct.
Melton is on paid administrative leave while the criminal and internal affairs investigations proceed. Police officials forwarded the case for review by the Stanislaus County district attorney's office, which has refused to release crucial details.
The charge is the latest incident in a string of career ups and downs for Melton, who was awarded a medal as a rookie, then lost his job after failing to pass probation, then won it back.
After multiple attempts to reach him Tuesday, Melton messaged The Bee on Tuesday night to say that questions should be directed to his attorney.
Prosecutors filed a criminal complaint against Melton on July 23 that claims he assaulted a detained person while on duty. If convicted, the maximum sentence for that charge is one year in jail or prison, according to the state Penal Code.
Melton is free on his own recognizance as he awaits an Aug. 15 arraignment hearing, according to Stanislaus County Superior Court records. He has not appeared in court.
When Melton started his career with the Ceres Police Department, his training officer was Sam Ryno, who was shot by the same man who killed Sgt. Howard Stevenson in 2005. Melton ducked behind a patrol car during the ambush at a liquor store and helped pull the badly wounded Ryno to safety, staying at his side until help arrived.
A few months after the January shooting, Melton received a medal for his lifesaving efforts. But by year's end, he was terminated for failing his 12-month probation period. That failure, according to a psychologist's report, stemmed in large part from the trauma he suffered during the shootout.
Records show that Melton's performance started to decline in the spring of 2005 when he showed signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. He occasionally forgot street names, and he once snapped at a man in a child custody dispute and at co-workers on two other occasions, according to documents.
After contesting his dismissal and filing a workers compensation claim, Melton got his job back in mid-2006.
A year after his reinstatement, he was among about a half dozen officers named in a lawsuit filed by a group of partygoers that said police used excessive force while breaking up the party. The plaintiffs lost that case in federal court.
Addressing the most recent claim against Melton, de Werk said in a news release that "While these circumstances, as reported, are very unfortunate, it is highly appropriate that what took place on April 13 is being handled by the district attorney's office.
"Officer Melton's conduct, as alleged, does not reflect the values of Ceres Police Department or the law enforcement community as a whole. The fact that this incident was reported and is being examined in the context of criminal law, and internal departmental procedures, reminds us that the system does and can work to retain the public trust."
Ceres police referred questions about the incident to the district attorney's office. The name of the person Melton is accused of assaulting was not included in a criminal complaint against him, and Assistant District Attorney Carol Shipley refused to release the name or any details about Melton's contact with that person. The reason she gave: "We don't try the case in the paper."
She did not provide a legal defense for withholding that information, which in the majority of circumstances is public under the California Public Records Act.
California Newspaper Publishers Association attorney Jim Ewert said, "Their desire to not want to try the case in the media is not a recognized exemption under the California public records act. That is an irresponsible response to a request for information about a police officer who is accused of beating a citizen."
Without the name of the alleged victim, Ewert questioned how Melton could properly defend himself.