Better information-sharing and increased prevention efforts are part of a plan unveiled Friday by elected officials and law enforcement agents who said they are determined to attack gang violence in Merced County.
The $4.5 million Violence Interruption/Prevention Emergency Response, or VIPER, program uses social media, gang sources and information databases to intervene before violence happens, according to leaders. Another $20 million in the state’s budget would go to police departments with 100 or fewer officers, which describes all six police departments in the county, to implement plans to work with young people before they join gangs, among other efforts.
Pushed through the state Legislature by Assemblyman Adam Gray, D-Merced, and state Sen. Anthony Cannella, R-Ceres, the budget items still need approval from Gov. Jerry Brown.
Merced County had 93 slayings in the past three years, according to District Attorney Larry Morse II. The county had 10.9 homicides per 100,000 residents in the latest numbers available, he said, which is double the state average.
“The gang problem in Merced has mushroomed, as we’re all aware,” he said, adding that the “lion’s share” of homicides are gang-related.
The homicides in Merced County have been a hot topic in recent months. In April, Morse and Sheriff Vern Warnke were frustrated with the county’s response to the killing rate and chastised the Board of Supervisors and demanded that more be done.
If you have several thousand gang members, there’s only a few willing to carry out the violent acts.
Special Agent Dean Johnston from the state Department of Justice
Special Agent Dean Johnston from the state Department of Justice described the VIPER program to the dozens of people in the audience, which included elected officials. He said Merced County has an “archaic” system that does not allow information from databases to be shared with other county agencies.
The program would allow the data to be shared across agencies and would bring in analysts who can spot potential violence. He said there are more than 7,000 identified gang members in the county, but the sophisticated system can drill down to determine the much smaller number of people likely to commit violence.
“If you have several thousand gang members, there’s only a few willing to carry out the violent acts,” he said. “Unfortunately, because of numbers and stats that are thrown around, a lot of people sometimes think that the problem is overwhelming and can’t be handled.”
Beyond that, the system is supposed to let agencies know what kind of social services can help victims and the families surrounding gang members. Law enforcement would pass the information on to county services or nonprofits who provide those services.
“Analysts and information-gathering scares some people because they think it’s government or Big Brother collecting additional information on you,” he said. “The real reality of it is, in law enforcement, it’s the most effective way to do the right thing and have the most information available.”
First-time offenders of less serious crimes are more likely to be steered toward counseling or other services in an attempt to help them find their way away from gangs, leaders said. Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, said offenders often come from broken homes or otherwise difficult lives, which makes the prevention efforts important.
Clearly, (police) have to deal with the triage and the effects of violence of these crimes in our neighborhoods, but they also need to have support on the front end in terms of prevention.
Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno
“Clearly, (police) have to deal with the triage and the effects of violence of these crimes in our neighborhoods, but they also need to have support on the front end in terms of prevention,” he said.
The public meeting at City Hall attracted dozens of people. Not everyone, however, was convinced the plan was a good one. Some said Merced County is overpoliced already, and that policing disproportionately affects people of color.
Claudia Gonzalez, who works with two Merced nonprofits, said VIPER is not the right solution to curbing violence. She said the funding would be better used on services for young people.
“The community is tired of being overlooked, overpoliced and ignored,” she said.
Another $1.1 million in the state budget would pay for emergency preparedness equipment at UC Merced.
“Considering UC Merced’s progress on the 2020 plan to expand the campus’s student population to 10,000, the timing could not be more appropriate to boost the resources available for campus safety,” Gray said. “Doubling the campus’s footprint will certainly require some growing pains, but this funding will help to ensure safety is not neglected.”