Politics in play in Merced checkpoint closure?

06/13/2014 8:39 PM

06/14/2014 6:38 AM

A Merced police captain shut down a drunken-driving checkpoint in May after a prominent restaurant owner complained about the checkpoint’s location to the Merced County district attorney.

Capt. Tom Trindad cited “political” reasons when he ordered the shutdown on May 24. Exactly what he meant when he used the word “political” prompted a debate within the ranks of the Merced Police Department and triggered an administrative change to the department’s process for establishing DUI checkpoints.

Some officers, including the police union president, believe Branding Iron owner Greg Parle used his friends in politics to shut down the checkpoint in front of his restaurant. Top law enforcement officials, including Trindad and District Attorney Larry D. Morse II, said that was not the case. Trindad said the checkpoint was closed early to avoid hurting business at the Branding Iron.

Bar owner threatens officer’s job

The night of May 24, Memorial Day weekend, Parle confronted Sgt. Jay Struble while officers set up the checkpoint across the street and one block over from Parle’s Branding Iron restaurant and bar at the intersection of West 16th and N streets.

Parle refused to be interviewed for this story.

The Merced Sun-Star obtained a copy of the audio recording of the exchange between Struble and a man police have confirmed is Parle. The recording can be heard on the Sun-Star’s website.

On the recording, Parle tells Struble the checkpoint would “put me out of business” and that “the mayor” had personally promised that DUI checkpoints would not be set up near his bar. Parle goes on to tell the sergeant that he will call the mayor and the police chief.

“You’ll be working in Atwater next week,” Parle threatens Struble on the recording.

Struble says the checkpoint’s location was based on “statistical data” regarding DUI arrests.

Parle did not reach Chief Norman Andrade and Mayor Stan Thurston, both men confirmed. Thurston said he never made any promises to Parle regarding DUI checkpoints. He said Parle must have been referring to a previous mayor.

At some point after the recorded exchange, Parle reached Morse, the district attorney.

“I got a call from Greg (Parle). He was upset because he thought he’d been promised that checkpoints wouldn’t be set up in that place, because he said they bring his business to an absolute standstill,” Morse said. “I relayed the substance of his complaint to (Trindad), let him know that Greg, a business owner, was upset.”

Morse said there was no “influence peddling” and he was only alerting a police commander to a complaint regarding a department operation.

“If I got a call from any business owner and believed I could put them in touch with the appropriate people, I’d do it for anybody,” Morse said. “I’m in the phone book; anybody can get ahold of me.”

Trindad said Morse “never told me to or asked me or suggested that I shut it down in any way, shape or form.”

“All he (Morse) told me was that Mr. Parle was upset about the location of the checkpoint,” Trindad said. “He (Morse) did not influence or try to influence my decision in any way.”

About 90 minutes after the exchange with the Branding Iron owner, Struble received a call from Trindad and was told to operate the checkpoint for one more hour and then shut it down.

“The mission of a checkpoint is to educate the public, not really to make arrests,” Trindad said. “The mission had been completed, and I wanted to show that we’re willing to work with the business community.”

Officers spent the rest of the night conducting “saturation patrols” for suspected drunken drivers.

Parle apparently regretted his comments to Struble. Three days later, Parle wrote the veteran police sergeant an apology letter. “I was out of line,” the letter reads in part. “It will never happen again!”

Trying to ‘strike a balance’

Trindad said the decision to close the checkpoint more than three hours early was not motivated out of fear or concern for Parle’s connections to key political figures in Merced County. Rather, Trindad said, he wanted to send a message to local business owners that the Police Department is responsive to their concerns.

Trindad said he tried to “strike a balance” between police enforcement and the needs of businesses. He acknowledged using the term “political” in his conversation with Struble.

“I probably did make that statement, but it was unintentional on my part,” Trindad said. “I was looking for a win-win solution.”

But that, apparently, was not the impression Trindad gave the sergeant when he issued the order.

In his checkpoint report Struble stated, “Capt. Trindad said (Parle) is (too) politically connected to battle with him over the checkpoint being in front of his business.”

“Capt. Trindad made several statements when discussing why we should close it,” Struble said in an interview. “One of the reasons was the owner of the Branding Iron has too many political connections in the city and could make it rough on the Merced Police Department with all his connections.”

Joe Deliman, president of the Merced Police Officers Association, said the checkpoint operations should have continued as scheduled.

“We don’t think it should’ve been shut down. We believe there may have been some political feelings in the way,” Deliman said. “We’d have liked to see more support for the officer in the field.”

Police Chief Andrade said using the word “political” was merely an unfortunate choice of words that did not accurately reflect the captain’s intentions.

“It wasn’t a political decision. It was looking at potential adverse impacts on a local business,” the chief said. “Things aren’t always what they look like, and, in this particular case, the decision made by the captain was not based on any political pressure.”

Potential effects to business is one of several criteria typically used when establishing checkpoint locations, according to the May 24 operations plan obtained by the Sun-Star. The primary motive for a location is based on DUI arrest and collision data compiled by the department, police officials said.

Hot spot for DUIs

Merced police received $73,200 last year from the state Office of Traffic Safety for operations combating impaired driving. About $13,000 of that money is earmarked for DUI checkpoints, according to police records.

Police online crime-mapping statistics show that about one-third of all DUI reports over the past 18 months in Merced occur within a one-mile radius of the intersection of the 600 block of West 16th Street.

“It’s one of the hottest spots for DUIs,” Struble said. “There’s always a lot of activity in that area.”

Police said the area is located near downtown business parking lots, including several bars and restaurants.

“The (checkpoint) location had nothing to do with (Parle’s) bar,” Struble said. “It was based on statistical data. We also look at where is the safest place to put it for the public and the officers.”

Struble noted that Branding Iron customers leaving the parking lot could have avoided the checkpoint by turning right onto West 16th Street.

Police officials, including Andrade and Trindad, agreed the checkpoint’s location was based on arrest and collision data.

They also said there are other considerations made when establishing a location, including potential for “adverse influence” on local business.

Several Merced businesses and organizations have complained about checkpoint locations in the past.

However, Capt. Bimley West said, in those cases the checkpoints were located farther away from the businesses than was the case on May 24.

Procedural change

The police chief called the episode “unfortunate.”

“I stand by both the sergeant’s decision to set up there and the captain’s decision as well,” Andrade said. “The captain made probably an unpopular decision, but it was ethical and it was legal.”

Still, Andrade said the incident prompted him to change the administrative process used to establish checkpoint locations.

Now, Andrade said, the sergeant in charge of a checkpoint will collaborate with lieutenants and captains beforehand to “make sure everybody is on the same page” regarding locations.

Andrade said he hopes the new process eliminates similar future situations. The chief said the department will reach out to city business owners to “help educate everybody on how” checkpoint locations are established.

“Nobody did anything wrong here; nobody is going to be disciplined,” Andrade said. “It’s unfortunate these things cause a little unrest. It’s serious enough that I’m implementing the change to make the process better.”

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