NEW BETHLEHEM – “Jim was all about the betterment of the community. He was consistent and it was never about him.”
That’s how retired District Judge Dan George characterized former New Bethlehem Police Chief Jim Merwin who passed away on Wednesday, July 7 at the age of 83.
Merwin, who became police chief in 1987, is remembered as the one who restored integrity and professionalism to the then-struggling New Bethlehem Police Department.
When Merwin took the helm, the department was suffering from a series of scandals and investigations. Aware of the monumental task that lay ahead of him, Merwin reportedly said at the time that he would “work overtime to heal the force’s damaged reputation.”
According to George, who remembers well the disarray that plagued the department at the time, Merwin’s work and dedication to the community accomplished that.
“After three-and-a-half years of dealing with that mess, [Jim] was a breath of fresh air,” George said. “If I was picking the cream of the crop of all the local officers [I’ve worked with], Jim would be at the top of the list.”
Former New Bethlehem Borough Council member Ed Goth concurred, noting that Merwin was “very dedicated to the police department and New Bethlehem Borough.”
“He would work hours and hours outside of his normal time because he felt that it was the right thing to do,” Goth said. “He was very well-respected within the law enforcement community.”
Clarion County Sheriff and retired state police trooper Rex Munsee recounted several important cases — including a homicide, suicide, bank robbery, assault and more — that he worked with Chief Merwin.
“When you worked with Jim, he was just so down to earth,” Munsee said, noting that Merwin often conducted suspect interviews like a conversation. “He was a non-threatening police officer, and he listened to what people said.”
One of their more memorable cases, according to Munsee, involved the arrest of a suspect with an outstanding warrant at a local eatery in New Bethlehem. As he was taking the suspect into custody, Munsee realized that the suspect had only one arm.
“I looked at Jim and said, ‘he doesn’t have an arm,’” Munsee said. “Jim turned and said, ‘put it [the cuff] on his belt loop.’ So, I took the cuff and put it behind him on his belt loop.”
Shane White, who served as an NBPD officer under Merwin for two-and-a-half years until Merwin’s retirement in 2004, said he was impressed with Merwin’s work ethic and dedication long before he joined the force.
“I was a senior in high school during the flood of 1996, but I can remember Chief working non-stop,” he said. “A lot of people don’t realize what he had vested in this community. You’ll never have another chief of police like that.”
Former Clarion County 911 dispatcher Dave Milliren commented, too, on Merwin’s quick actions during the flood, which very well saved lives. Milliren said that upon learning that water was rising in Jefferson County, Merwin, who was not on duty at the time, drove up Route 28 to check the conditions. Upon realizing how dire the situation was, Merwin immediately had 911 contact the fire department, who in turn activated the flood warning siren.
“Due to Jim’s quick actions that day, no lives were lost,” Milliren said.
White went on to say that years later when he joined the ranks of the NBPD, he came to know Merwin as one of his most influential mentors.
“The biggest thing I can always remember him pounding into my head was, ‘treat them like you want to be treated,’” White said. “Twenty years later in my career, I still use that.”
Another lesson, White said, came during his initial job training with Merwin.
“When I would back the car into the garage, Jim wanted the [car’s] overdrive off and the high beams on. For weeks he pounded that into my head,” White said, noting that at the time, he couldn’t understand why Merwin required such practices.
Eventually, when White asked the reason for the parking ritual, Merwin told him that it was all about attentiveness, reminding White that such attention to detail could someday save his life on the job.
“To this day, I have a Post-it note in my office with the quote, ‘Overdrive off, high beams on, it’s all about the details,’” White said. “I still take that to work every day.”
In addition to his 25-year career as police chief, Merwin was also a member of the Local 75 Bricklayers and Allied Craftsman and was owner-operator of Merwin Masonry.
He also served as a member of New Bethlehem Borough Council after retiring from the force, was honored by the New Bethlehem Chamber of Commerce as Citizen of the Year, and was a member of the St. Charles Catholic Church and the New Bethlehem Lions Club.
Merwin married the former Patricia Montana in 1958. She preceded him in death in February 2014. The couple is survived by three sons, Jeff, Steve and David and their families, which include seven grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.