WAYCROSS, Ga. – An incident that one family is calling police brutality has led to a multimillion dollar lawsuit against the Waycross Police Department.
On Jan. 18, high school senior Montre' Merritt was pulling into his driveway at home and was asked to pull over by a Waycross police officer. The officer then got out of his vehicle and pointed a gun at the teen's head, instructing him to get on the ground and then handcuffing him. When Merritt's mother came outside to see why her son was being arrested, the officer said her son had a seat belt violation.
Merritt filed a complaint with the Waycross Police Department after the incident.
According to the chief of the department, Officer Cory Gay was found guilty of using excessive force, and he was suspended for five days without pay. Gay was then ordered to take Judgmental Use of Force Training. But Merritt's family said that's not enough and Thursday they filed a multimillion dollar lawsuit against the department.
Merritt, who now attends a four-year university, said he had a 3.5 GPA in high school and was an all-star athlete and he can't believe this happened to him.
"Coming from me being a huge role model in my community, to see my mom witness that. That was one of the most painful things I could ever imagine for her," Merritt said. "The pain that I still feel. The tears that I still cry. Everything is just real in reality. I have to wake up with this on my heart and on my mind every day, and it hurts."
Merritt said he still has flashbacks from the incident.
"That night when it happened, I felt like I could have been another Trayvon Martin case," Merritt said. "And just hearing how Mike Brown went about his case for doing the right thing. He still got shot. I just feel like I don't want any of my friends or family, I don't want that to happen to anybody."
According to a $12.5 million lawsuit filed Thursday by Merritt's lawyer, Reginald Greene, Merritt is suing the Waycross Police Department, claiming one of their officers racially profiled Merritt, and then used excessive force in a false arrest. The lawsuit also claims negligent supervision, assault and battery, deprivation of civil rights, and causing emotional distress.
Greene said this case represents just another chapter in the world of police brutality that he said is happening across the nation.
"What we have to do is target those wrong police officers and those wrong police departments that will harbor and maintain practices that take the lives and take the rights of citizens," Green said. "Levar Jones was shot in South Carolina for a seat belt violation. Mike Jones was killed and Eric Garner was choked to death. We can't allow this to continue to happen, and we will have zero tolerance."
The police chief said he hasn't seen the actual lawsuit yet, so he's not commenting on that, but the department will consult with its attorneys in the the next few days.
Merritt said he now wants to start a mentoring program to help kids of all races understand their rights.
Thursday night, families from Georgia and Florida who have lost loved ones gathered in Waycross at a town hall meeting to discuss police brutality.
"If we don't do something to stop it, we will create a new slavery," said Rev. Fer-Rell Malone Sr. of Macedonia Baptist Church.
Sandra Gandy and her husband said their son was shot by police 12 times in 2005.
"It's just a shame that people are killing and killing and ain't nothing being done about it," Sandra Gandy said. "Police just getting off. And I say that because my son was begging for his life."
Now that he's no longer with them, Sandra and Esau Gandy Jr. said they drove all the way from Jennings, Florida, to be their son's voice at the Waycross town hall.
"We want justice. We want peace, because we've been fighting this since 2005, and we have never got justice for the killing of our son," Esau Gandy Jr. said.
Former Waycross police Officer Christopher Jordan said he was injured in a recent traffic violation.
"He exited his car and told me I was under arrest," Jordan said. "He put my arm behind my back and threw me to the ground. I suffered a shoulder injury."
Jordan said he went to the Waycross town hall not to point blame but to educate.
"My purpose here tonight is to spread that you need to know the law," Jordan said. "We need to educate, but abide by the law."