Roughly 65 people gathered in the Merced City Council chambers Friday morning to learn about programs that just might help in lowering our horrible homicide rate.
Convening a “public safety summit” were Assemblyman Adam Gray, Sen. Anthony Cannella and Rep. Jim Costa; they were joined by the top-ranking law enforcement officials in Merced County.
But the one person who truly matters to the programs wasn’t in the room. The budget is awaiting Gov. Jerry Brown’s signature, and he can line out any program he doesn’t like. If he had been in the room, he clearly would see the utter necessity for these programs and, we believe, would fund them without hesitation.
“We’ve all been working together,” said Gray. “Now the governor needs to sign the budget.”
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Over the past three statistical years, there have been 93 murders in Merced – or 10.5 for every 100,000 residents. That’s more than twice the state average and has led all of the state’s 58 counties the past two years.
Cannella noted that he has four children and wants them to feel safe in any park in the county. While “government in Merced County does a great job,” he said, “sometimes you need some help.”
If it is signed, the Violence Intervention/Prevention Emergency Response program will be funded. Some of VIPER’s features have worked well in similar programs in a few other communities. But this program – which comes with substantial assistance from the California Department of Justice – was designed specifically for Merced.
It will provide $4.5 million to collate, process and disseminate gang information across all agencies; it also will provide counseling and intervention – presumably through programs already in place. The DOJ staffer most involved with designing and implementing the program lives in Merced County, so he has a personal stake.
Another program awaiting the governor’s signature will provide $1.1 million for the UC Merced security force – important as the campus doubles in size over the next decade.
As Merced police Chief Norm Andrade put it, “This is a great day for Merced.”
We think so, too. Our communities are in crisis, as violent crime threatens to overwhelm law enforcement, swamp our courts and turn our streets into free-fire zones. In their wake, each murder leaves dozens of victims – a point Costa will try to address through a federal victims’ support program.
It is a crisis, and what we’re doing to stem it hasn’t been working. We need help, and we’re delighted so many of our elected representatives have responded.
But a few members of the audience rose to speak against VIPER. Some were concerned that with 7,600 young people noted for gang affiliations, this could expand into a “police state.” Others felt the money could be better used on youth programs.
There is no doubt Merced could use more and better youth programs. But the beauty of VIPER is that it will identify those most in danger of committing such crimes or becoming victims, giving authorities a chance to intercede before it happens. Those involved will have a real chance to turn around their lives. If authorities don’t know who they are, such steps can’t be taken.
Violence is epidemic in Merced County. We’re happy so many are willing to help find a cure.