Merced County’s new sheriff looking to beef up gang, drug units

01/01/2014 6:40 PM

01/02/2014 10:55 PM

Newly appointed Merced County Sheriff Tom Cavallero plans to add more deputies to fight street gangs and narcotics beginning next month.

Responding to a Merced Sun-Star question about the 19 homicides that occurred in 2013 in unincorporated Merced County, Cavallero announced plans earlier this week to reassign deputies from the department’s Tactical and Reconnaissance Team.

“The STAR Team has certainly been very productive and those deputies have certainly distinguished themselves,” Cavallero said, “but we would like to try using those assets in other places and see what kind of results we get.”

One position will be moved to the Merced County Gang Task Force and another to the narcotics task force, while the third position will be used to beef up the department’s patrol unit. The changes will go into effect in February, the sheriff said.

The STAR Team was created in 2002 to reduce the number of outstanding arrest warrants. The unit eventually expanded its role to include fugitive apprehension, narcotics investigations, illegal firearms seizures, property crimes and asset forfeitures from criminals, according to Merced County records.

In recent years, the unit has focused its efforts on high-level marijuana eradication with a special emphasis on tackling large-scale trafficking operations associated with drug cartels.

Last year, STAR Team deputies eradicated 77,143 illegal plants and seized more than 1,200 pounds of street-ready marijuana buds from indoor and outdoor operations. Those investigators arrested more than 30 suspected growers and seized about 100 firearms.

But with the highest number of homicides in more than two decades in 2013 in Merced County, including numerous unsolved gang-related murders, the sheriff appears to be looking to shake things up at the department in search of better results.

Gang violence likely will be a key campaign issue during the upcoming sheriff’s race, as several candidates have pledged to put more resources into combating street gangs.

Candidates Sgt. Frank Swiggart and Senior Sgt. Rich Howard, both of whom work at the Merced County Sheriff’s Department, said the issue needs to be explored.

Candidate Pat Lunney, the chief of investigations for the Merced County District Attorney’s Office, said establishing a more robust gang unit would be “first thing” he would do if elected.

Cavallero, who was sworn in as sheriff earlier this week to complete the final year of Mark Pazin’s term, has said he has no plans to seek the office. Pazin left the department to take a position with the Gov. Jerry Brown’s office.

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