Leaders respond to Merced County District Attorney’s plea for more resources

rgiwargis@mercedsunstar.comFebruary 4, 2014 

District Attorney Larry Morse II dropped a bomb on county supervisors last week by taking aim at what he called the board’s lack of support for gang suppression efforts.

Now that the dust has settled, leaders in the community are reacting to the DA’s comments and discussing possible solutions to the county’s increasing gang problem.

“I think he got his message out there,” said Board of Supervisors Chairman and District 5 Supervisor Jerry O’Banion. “I anticipate that staff will make some recommendations that will address some of the things that Larry was talking about.”

Morse criticized the supervisors at their Jan. 28 board meeting for not devoting more money to fighting gang violence. Merced was ranked the 88th most dangerous place to live in the nation, according to a NeighborhoodScout report based on 2012 violent crime statistics. Morse said 2013 was the deadliest year in Merced’s history with 29 homicides, 19 of them in the county.

County supervisors didn’t make it a priority, he said, so the Sheriff’s Department had only one officer assigned to gang suppression compared with five officers and one sergeant at the Merced Police Department. Morse said his office created the Merced Multi-Agency Gang Task Force in 2008 and spent $1.4 million on the effort over five years, although that was not the office’s core mission.

A difference in philosophy between former Sheriff Mark Pazin and the district attorney also created some tension, county officials said. Pazin focused his attention on eradicating drugs, and Morse homed in on the gang problem.

“His philosophy is that the drug issues were more important than the gangs,” O’Banion said of Pazin. “I was one that was trying to convince the sheriff that gangs were more important than drugs. I felt that if we could ever suppress the gang issue, the drug issues would take care of themselves.”

With Pazin’s departure late last year, a new leader in the Sheriff’s Department added one officer to the gang suppression task force. But interim Sheriff Tom Cavallero said the agency is stretching every dollar to meet the needs of several areas – the coroner’s office, court security and corrections.

The Sheriff’s Department has lost 31 people since 2008, Cavallero said.

“We have X amount of resources and we have to keep all those things viable,” Cavallero said. “We’re not going to fix it in the time I have, but someone is going to be faced with the fact that we have 31 less people. This is a balancing act, and if it’s a crime in which violence is a component, then that’s the priority.”

Morse said his strong message to the Board of Supervisors last month was prompted by the latest homicide statistics, adding that the time to fight gang-related crimes is now.

“The numbers were so awful that they demanded a response. We’ve never had 29 homicides and 19 of them in the county,” Morse said in a recent Sun-Star interview. “We need more of a commitment from the Sheriff’s Department, supported by the Board of Supervisors, to getting into the neighborhoods where the gangs have really taken hold and getting them out of there.”

Merced police also lost officers, according to police Chief Norm Andrade. The department had 111 sworn officers in 2008; it now has 77. Three officers are in training and the department will eventually hire more officers to meet its authorized number of 88 officers.

District 3 Supervisor Linn Davis said he was “surprised” by Morse’s comments, adding that the Board of Supervisors can’t mandate how elected officials such as the sheriff spend department money. “We have not been in the practice of telling them how to run their jobs,” Davis said. “It’s kind of like me controlling what you do. The sheriff understands his business a lot better than I do.”

Though Morse acknowledged the board can’t dictate how money is spent, he said it can make recommendations to devote more resources to reducing the gang problem.

“I agree they can’t tell elected officials how to spend the money, but they can certainly say this is an enormous priority to us,” Morse said. “It’s an economic development issue. The perception that a county does not have control of its crime problem is a very counterproductive message to send out when you’re trying to attract business development and families.”

District 4 Supervisor Deidre Kelsey said law enforcement agencies in the county need to come together to address the gang violence.

“It’s very fortunate that we have an interim sheriff who feels differently and wants to address this issue in the interim,” Kelsey said. “I think the solution is to have both the cities and the county, and various law enforcement agencies, work cohesively to achieve a common goal.”

Cavallero said the Sheriff’s Department will look for ways to increase funding for gang suppression efforts when it reviews next year’s budget.

“We’ll look at that,” Cavallero said. “I’m not anticipating the golden goose, but when we look at the budget, there’s going to be a lot of discussion about it.”

Sun-Star staff writer Ramona Giwargis can be reached at (209) 385-2477 or rgiwargis@mercedsunstar.com.

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