Lower pay and fewer benefits are not the reasons the Merced County Sheriff’s Office has struggled for years to recruit and retains deputies, according to the County’s Executive Officer Jim Brown.
It’s just these kids today.
Also, Brown said, people don’t really like cops right now.
“Today, the millennial generation isn’t interested in a law enforcement career. I think when most of us were back in our youth, we had friends who all wanted to be police officers. Today, you don’t see that,” Brown said. “Then combined – it’s not a good thing, we don’t support it, we don’t agree with it – the perception right now of law enforcement doesn’t help. So those two things make it very difficult to recruit quality employees.”
Those remarks from the county’s top employee came Tuesday during the regular meeting of the Board of Supervisors.
Merced County Sheriff Vern Warnke disagrees — strongly.
He said in an interview there are many young people who would like to stay in Merced County to be near their families. “There are still young people who desire to be in law enforcement,” he said. “We just have to make it attractive.”
Brown’s comments came in response to nearly a dozen county residents who spoke in support of Warnke’s plea to the Merced County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday to give deputies a reason to work here and stay here – a pay raise.
Many of the residents were farmers, living and working in rural areas of the county battling property crimes. They’ve armed their homes and properties with fences, security cameras and alarm systems. They’ve armed themselves with concealed carry permits. But, low-level felons are released from jail only to return to their properties and rip them off, several people argued Tuesday.
“Our area has been devastated by break-ins,” said Pirus Abraham, who farms in the Livingston and Delhi areas. “It’s vital that you get on this topic. Get your heads together, and come up with some solution. ... We are begging you, basically, to do something quickly.”
The sheriff and residents argued low pay is creating a problem recruiting and retaining deputies, leading to low staffing, deputies working overtime and longer response times.
Currently, 16 deputy positions are vacant, Warnke said. The department employs 97 sworn officers. Four new deputies are in field training, and there are about a half-dozen who have yet to start training. Plus, not every deputy currently is working because of work-related injuries or other issues, Warnke said.
Warnke said he didn’t have numbers immediately available Wednesday.
“I know we’re the lowest (in the north valley)” Warnke said, “and the lowest or nearly the lowest in the whole valley.”
It’s the third year in a row the sheriff has asked the board of supervisors to give his deputies raises.
“I’ve been told several times, ‘It’s not just the pay, Sheriff.’ What is it?” Warnke said, addressing the board. “That’s what I’m asking you. What is it then? I’ve got the men and women back here telling me it is the pay. ... Folks, it’s at that point where we need your help. ... We’ve got to make a decision. Somebody is going to have to be told no, and it shouldn’t be us.”
County officials insist public safety is a priority with more than 50 percent of the budget dedicated to it. Brown also said because of the state’s retirement system, senior law enforcement officers seek positions in better-paying areas such as the Bay Area to boost their pension in retirement.
“They don’t know how to run a law enforcement agency,” Warnke said. “That’s why the folks elected a sheriff.”
Supervisor Lloyd Pareira said the public’s cries did not fall on deaf ears. “Everybody up here knows public safety is important. We realize what’s happening,” he said. “The issue is grave. ... I think the county staff and board got your message.”
Supervisor Rodrigo Espinoza, said he can relate to the property owners. Espinoza, a farmer, had a $300,000 barn burned down by vagrants in February, he said.
He urged his fellow board members to work together to find a solution.
“Let’s come together and see what we can do,” he said. “My commitment is there for public safety.”
Warnke said the county needs to look at comparative pay rates at every level. He said he firmly believes the issue is about money, not an apathetic generation of young people.
Millennials “aren’t stupid,” Warnke said. “They want to be paid for putting their lives on the line.”
Brianna Calix: 209-385-2477