Finally, we’re beginning to see progress in confronting this county’s most critical crisis – murder.
Responding to our call for a community summit to address Merced County’s staggering per capita murder rate – the highest in the state the past two statistical years – Assemblyman Adam Gray and Sen. Anthony Cannella have arranged a “public safety summit” for Friday. But they’ve done more than that.
Working with Sen. Cathleen Galgiani and others, Gray and Cannella have locked down $4.5 million to implement VIPER – Violence Intervention/Protection Emergency Response.
“Outstanding!” was Sheriff Vern Warnke’s excited reaction. That’s our reaction as well.
The need is dire. In April, District Attorney Larry Morse II and Warnke were so frustrated with the county’s inadequate response, they chastised the Board of Supervisors and demanded more be done. After seeing 93 murders in four years, the Sun-Star echoed their demands.
Gray and Cannella were paying attention, and have responded with Friday’s summit. And they’re not coming empty-handed. VIPER has been highly effective in the few other California communities where it has been tried. But without help from the state, it couldn’t have been implemented. That’s why the across-the-aisle cooperation by Gray and Cannella was crucial.
VIPER is a sophisticated computer-based tool to collate, manage and put to use data gathered across law enforcement agencies – highway patrol, Sheriff’s Office, city police departments, the District Attorney, probation and more. The goal is to help law enforcement anticipate problems, and after they occur prosecute them. Eventually, counselors will arrive to help solidify the community’s gains.
“VIPER is a new, innovative approach that takes existing information and directs resources specifically toward reducing homicides,” Cannella said. “This program is a creative answer to a problem that is devastating the families of our communities.”
Said Gray: “Programs like VIPER have been highly effective in reducing violent crime and gang activities. It’s a multiyear project. We have three years of funding. It’s a matter of getting in there and seeing it through over the course of a couple of years.”
A California Department of Justice representative will attend Friday’s meeting to help explain what will be required and what to expect.
Warnke is delighted. “Our crooks are very technical in what they’re doing so we have to be, too,” he said. “It’s going to create intelligence we can use to fight the gangs.”
VIPER isn’t yet a “total certainty,” Gray said. The money is in the budget voted on Wednesday evening but still must get past Gov. Jerry Brown, who could blue-pencil it away. That is unlikely; after all, Merced has a compelling case.
There could be more good news. Gray said the budget has an additional $1.1 million for UC Merced’s safety division and includes special funding for police departments with fewer than 100 officers – which would include most of Merced County’s cities.
Rep. Jim Costa will also attend Friday’s meeting, explaining the work his staff is doing to secure federal grants to either match or augment Merced County’s efforts.
All good news, but it won’t be enough unless the community is truly invested. Law enforcement can’t solve problems this large alone. It takes everyone – schools, churches, youth groups and good neighbors – working together.
“Even though we have been able to secure more funding for violence prevention, direct interaction with the community is key,” said Cannella, who called the incidence of murder and violent crime here an “epidemic.”
He’s right. The real work of saving lives and reducing crime involves us all. It’s just nice to know we’re finally getting some help.
Public safety summit
What: Discussion of strategies to confront murder in Merced County.
When, Where: 10 to 11:30 a.m., Merced City Council Chambers, 678 W. 18th St.