Task force forming to deal with 'hot spots'

Merced Police making use of new federal funds

jsmith@mercedsunstar.comMarch 7, 2013 

— With recently secured funding to hire new police officers, the city and top law enforcement officials are putting together a special unit to focus on the city's most stubborn problems.

The basic idea is to respond to "hot spots," said Police Chief Norm Andrade.

"If you're having an issue in a certain neighborhood dealing with drugs or something, they can assist there," he said. "The hot spot could be downtown dealing with panhandling, homeless or prostitution in the hotels."

The move comes as the city grapples with a major upswing in crime. Last year the city saw a 25 percent jump in illegal activity, the biggest increase in more than a decade.

Andrade said he hopes to present the plan to the City Council within the next two months.

The idea of forming the special unit came at the request of the council, which signaled a desire to see more innovated approaches to policing.

"It's an idea to create a special unit with a police sergeant in charge, who would be a quick response team to hot spots in Merced," Mayor Stan Thurston explained.

Councilman Mike Murphy said the council put forward the question: "Is it best to have a patrol car whizzing by in the neighborhood or have foot patrols walking a beat?"

"I'm hoping to see some creativity in terms of how we can better meet the public safety needs of our community," he said. "That may involve more visibility in the community and strong relationships between law enforcement and residents."

Andrade seemed to agree: "I can beef up patrol, but having them target specific problems will be more beneficial."

Hiring four new officers

The idea of forming a special unit started to take shape after the department secured a grant that will allow the hiring of four new officers. While the new officers will likely not serve on the team, the extra manpower frees up more senior officers to take on the project.

Last summer the Merced Police Department qualified for a $1.1 million in federal funding, which officials originally anticipated using to stave off layoffs. However, after budget negotiations left the department intact, officials amended their plan at the beginning of the year.

The grant funding will be used to hire four officers, giving preference to any officer in the state who's been laid off or is a veteran. The department is accepting applications and hopes to complete the hiring process by this summer.

The funding, secured through the Community Oriented Policing Services hiring program, lasts for three years. The grant requires the city to pay for the extra positions for at least one year after it expires.

Reporter Joshua Emerson Smith can be reached at (209) 385-2486 or jsmith@mercedsunstar.com.

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