Coming layoffs may shrink Merced Police Department below 2005 level

March 24, 2011 

Around 3,000 documented gangbangers, belonging to 30 gangs, prowl Merced's streets and alleys.

With Merced police layoffs looming, the ranks of the task force devoted to keeping tabs on those bad guys may be slashed in coming months.

That's just one scenario police officials are bracing for as a result of the city's fiscal crisis.

The gang unit isn't the only part of the department subject to the budgetary scalpel. The Traffic Division will probably be cut substantially. Moreover, officers will no longer personally respond to lower priority property crimes, such as certain types of theft.

The cuts stem from the city's $4 million to $5 million budget deficit, requiring all departments to trim 2011-12 budgets by 15 percent. Some city officials had been looking to a half-cent sales tax ballot measure to stave off some cuts -- but the City Council shot down that proposal by a 4-3 vote this week.

And while overall crime has decreased in Merced for the past six years, questions remain about whether the police layoffs will result in more crime.

Gang, traffic unit cuts

The police department's gang unit may be affected by layoffs because of the drastic citywide cuts. The gang unit staffs six officers and one sergeant. It was formed in 1994 because of the ballooning gang problem, according to Gang Violence Suppression Unit Sgt. Curt Gorman.

Gorman, who took over the gang unit in 2006, said even six officers and a sergeant aren't enough to adequately address the problem. And losing officers will only make an already dangerous job harder. "It amounts to this -- you have got to do more with less," he said. "And it's going to make it a little more difficult, yes, it'll have a negative impact on the gang unit."

But he said the remaining officers would continue to do the same work, just at a lower level. "Will it be as effective? No. The more people you have, the more effective you can be," he explained.

The unit gathers valuable intelligence on gang members and their activities. Often, that information leads to the arrest of suspects before homicides and other violent crimes can happen, said Merced Police Lt. Bimley West.

West said the department will have to reorganize the staff, including the gang unit, to ensure there's enough manpower. "If we happen to have to reduce the gang unit, we would take a look at the other areas where we have deployed officers and utilize officers from other areas, such as intervention officers who are at our schools," he said.

The department will never fold the gang unit, though it may be forced to reduce the number of officers. West said it's unknown how many gang unit officers that will be, although it could be two people. He stressed police will try to maintain the integrity of the gang unit to the best of their ability. "Because if we don't, the tragedies throughout our city are going to increase, and we want our citizens to not only feel that they're safe but to actually be safe," he said.

The traffic unit could also shrink by at least three officers.

That means police won't be able to field enough officers to respond to lower priority traffic calls, such as minor traffic collisions. Those issues will be left up to residents to resolve themselves, in terms of filing a police report.

There are eight officers in the traffic unit: six sworn traffic officers, one community service officer and one sergeant. West said the unit will lose one officer and sergeant, and one officer will be temporarily reassigned.

Some services saved

Fortunately, the main graffiti detective, who serves under the Investigations Unit, will remain on the job. "He is not affected by the layoffs," West said.

West stressed that responding to life-threatening situations, including sexual assaults and felonies, will remain the highest priority. Crimes such as identity theft would take precedence over low priority calls.

Officers will respond to all burglaries, West said, but burglaries where the suspect isn't on the premises wouldn't require an officer as immediately.

Injury crashes will also remain a high priority. "When it comes to a call that pertains to life in jeopardy or there is a need for assistance, we will definitely respond," West said.

There will be delays, based on the volume of higher priority calls.

Cases in point: Calls related to petty theft (a theft under $900), reporting stolen license plates or malicious mischief would be considered low priority calls. That means residents will oftentimes have to go to the department themselves and make a report, because an officer will not be available to respond to the scene.

There will be times when citizens will have to "fulfill their obligations of making those minor reports that are not detailed and require extensive investigation," West said.

Concerns increasing

A sense of disappointment and fear of the unknown hover over police officers and firefighters as they face the coming cuts.

Because of the City Council's 4-3 vote Monday, the sales tax measure failed to make it onto the Nov. 8 ballot, which means layoffs for citywide personnel and public safety positions.

There's deep concern and disappointment among Merced police officers, according to Police Chief Norm Andrade. The department has already begun providing leads to its officers about other jobs around the state. Some officers have already applied at other departments.

The chief's already decided to cut the police department's remaining commander, in addition to six non-sworn officers, such as records clerks and community aides. The department also closed offices in the Shannon Parcade, which house the department's gang unit, Traffic Division and volunteers. Those units will be moved to the department's 22nd Street main office or its 11th Street South station, resulting in $520,000 in savings.

With a possible loss of about 30 officers from a force of about 95 sworn officers, Andrade said they "will back-fill the officers who are lost from patrol. You back-fill from your special units."

That means taking people from school resource officers, the detective unit, the traffic unit and K-9 unit. Doing that may help the department "keep an acceptable number out there so we can respond to the emergency calls," Andrade said.

"Those who are left will continue to do their jobs," Andrade said. "There will be a sadness to see many of the young officers go."

The cuts could reduce the department's ranks to its lowest point in more than five years.

Under Measure C, which was approved by voters in 2005 to raise money for public safety improvements, the department grew to 111 officers from 87. But the economy's downturn has meant a hiring freeze in recent years for the department, preventing it from being fully staffed.

With the layoffs, the department could shrink almost in half to only 65 officers.

The department's statistics indicate crime overall has steadily declined every year since 2004. Andrade has previously attributed some of the crime reductions to the gains in police personnel in recent years.

He acknowledged the layoffs could have a negative impact on the crime rate. But he said there are also other points to consider, such as how the dismal economy affects residents.

"Other factors that are going to contribute, such as unemployment benefits for people," he said. "Right now, people are receiving money. If they cut those, that has a bigger impact on people not doing crime right now versus not getting (benefits). When a lot of those give-away programs go away, that may have a larger impact on law enforcement everywhere."

Bill Baker, one of the co-founders of Merced Voters Promoting Common Sense, believes crime will go up, regardless of whether there are layoffs. But he said there could be other areas in the department where the city could trim the budget.

"They're doing this prematurely and it's almost like, 'I'm going to punish you for not approving the tax measure,' " he said.

Before the city begins to get rid of absolutely essential first-responders, Baker said, "they've got to make sure they can do everything else they have to do.

"Personally, I don't care if the grass grows three feet tall in the parks -- those are the areas they should be looking at first before sacrificing protection for the community."

Moreover, Baker said, there would be additional tax measures coming from the new Wal-Mart distribution center being approved.

Fire Department cuts

Meanwhile, the Merced Fire Department could face a loss of up to 18 firefighters and the closure of a fire station because of its own mandated 15 percent budget cut. Layoffs are unavoidable, according to Fire Chief Mike McLaughlin. "We found a few efficiencies, but we are talking about positions now," he said. "The sun will come up tomorrow, we will be here, but we may be slightly different."

The department's service structure will also change. "There's no way to not take that many people and not close a fire station," he said. "From a strategic and tactical perspective of when and how, it's too early in the process to answer that. Our strategy in addressing that impact has been, what would have the least impact to the community? We are in a hard spot."

The fire department will re-evaluate its weed abatement program to find ways to do it more efficiently. Another service that may suffer is reducing the number of fire safety inspections in businesses, he said.

Like police, the fire department is on edge, he said.

"Definitely a fear and the fear of the unknown and what's it going to mean for me and my family. Am I going to have a job or not have a job? They're fearful, certainly, because these are peoples' careers, people who worked a long time to get to where they are and worked hard to get to where they are and provided excellent service to the community."

In any case, McLaughlin said the fire department will remain committed to providing highest level of service.

"It's truly an anomaly. The city is working to try to identify and be able to provide essential city services while making sure public safety remains paramount," he explained.

In 2007 through 2008, the department was staffed with 82 people and had hired nine more with a FEMA grant. With the Measure C half-cent 20-year sales tax increase, it was able to hire more people, he noted. But that was a time when the community was building and growing.

Then the economy tanked. Today, there are 69 staff at the department, with vacancies because people retired or resigned. But those positions won't be filled "because we don't know the future," he said. There have been no layoffs so far, he said.

The department is funded through a combination of general fund money, Measure C and community facilities district funds. With the 15 percent budget cut, the department has to cut about $1.3 million from the general fund. But that number jumps to $1.7 million once the rest of the funds are included, McLaughlin said.

"The 15 percent budget has been developed because what it will do is 100 percent close the structural deficit in our budget," he explained. "The question is, how can we do that and what will we look like after we cut our budget?"

McLaughlin insisted the department will still respond to emergencies. "What we have before us is not having the right answer," McLaughlin said. "What we have before us is choosing the least wrong answer."

So far, there hasn't been a whisper of bringing the sales tax back, according to Councilman Bill Blake.

"There is no indication, especially walking out of the last meeting, there is not any indication that it will rear its head again," he said. "That's not to say it won't come up next year again when we prepare for another budget."

Reporter Ameera Butt can be reached at (209) 385-2477 or abutt@mercedsun-star.com.

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