Editor’s Note: This is the first of a four-part series profiling the candidates for Merced County sheriff.
Pat Lunney is the only candidate for Merced County sheriff who has run large law enforcement agencies.
For more than 15 years, Lunney was chief of the Merced Police Department. He was one of the youngest in the nation when he was appointed chief in 1983 at the age of 35.
He left the department in 1998 and was appointed to serve in the state Justice Department. He ran its Division of Law Enforcement for more than four years, overseeing 1,400 people and a budget of $160 million.
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He returned to Merced County in 2008 to run the district attorney’s investigations unit, a post he still holds.
Lunney’s experience, particularly in top law enforcement management positions, is one of the areas he believes separates him from the other candidates vying to be the next sheriff.
“I want to mold the Sheriff’s Department into the best sheriff’s department in the state, and I can do that because I know what those organizations look like, and I know how they get things done,” Lunney said.
To address the county’s recent increase in violent and gang-related crimes and homicides, Lunney said he would develop a gang unit at the Sheriff’s Department similar to the one he implemented in the 1990s while running the city’s Police Department.
Working with patrol deputies to establish positive relationships with the people on their beats, he said, would go a long way in helping to solve violent crimes.
“When you have an active gang unit and deputies on the street communicating and developing (intelligence) gathering, that gives you an idea of who’s committing these crimes and can help you prevent some of it before it happens,” he said. “It’s the way the best police work has always been done.”
Fixing the county’s deteriorating jail facilities would be among his top priorities, Lunney said.
“First, we absolutely have to take care of any officer safety issues. That’s got to happen right away,” he said. “People are working long hours, double shifts day after day and that creates a lot of problems.”
Second, Lunney said, he would like to continue efforts to improve security at both jails to try to eliminate escapes.
“And ultimately, we have to go to Sacramento, find the money to build a new facility and, at the same time, find ways to alleviate, legislatively, the burdens that AB 109 put on the counties,” he said, referring to the law to reduce the state’s prison population.
As the oldest candidate, some of Lunney’s opponents have asked how long he intends to serve as sheriff. Lunney has called the issue a “red herring” and said he has no intention of being a one-term sheriff.
Lunney said his experience operating large budgets is a leadership advantage he has over the other candidates. He said he has the “utmost respect” for candidates Vern Warnke and Frank Swiggart, both sergeants at the Sheriff’s Department.
“I’ve been a sergeant too and I know how much of a jump it is to go from sergeant to the top position. That’s not a criticism of them; I know they’re both good men, but I believe my experience is important,” Lunney said. “I already know how to maneuver within a large budget to fulfill the department’s mission.”
MONDAY: A profile of candidate Jim Soria