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Department proud of low complaint numbers

Very few people call Merced police just to invite them in for a cup of tea. The stress-filled situations to which officers respond usually involve something going wrong and often result in bad feelings, Chief Russ Thomas says.

In the past three years, 30 formal complaints have been filed against the Merced Police Department but only four of them were sustained. That's out of 230,000 calls for service, or times when officers had some interaction with the public, Cmdr. Jeff Schindler said.

"The numbers speak for themselves," Schindler said. "It's a very good record we are proud of."

Thomas said the number of complaints, compared with calls for service, is "pretty infinitesimal." He terms the low numbers of complaints remarkable but said each issue is taken seriously and treated like a criminal investigation.

Of the 30 complaints filed since 2004, 13 were not sustained, eight were deemed unfounded, two were exonerated and four were withdrawn by citizens, Schindler said. The department's Internal Affairs Division, which includes Schindler and a police lieutenant, conducts the inquiries.

In a vast majority of cases, the complaining parties felt they weren't treated fairly or properly or perhaps an officer acted rudely or unprofessionally, Schindler said. Citizens fill out complaint forms and turn them into the duty sergeant. He or she then forwards them to higher-ups who initiate the investigation procedure.

So far this year six complaints have been filed with the department. Seven complaints were filed last year, 11 in 2005 and six in 2004, Schindler said.

The department averages 66,000 public contacts a year. In most cases, the contacts were citizen-initiated, or people asking the department for help.

Detective Keith Pelowski is president of the Merced Police Officers Association. Officers may ask the association to represent them at hearings and Pelowski or Detective Joe Weiss sit in on these sessions. If warranted, Pelowski said the association will have its attorneys get involved in the investigation.

"It (the low numbers) does speak very highly of this department's officers acting in a professional manner, with the number of contacts we make with people," Pelowski said. "The victim got a traffic ticket and didn't want to take it. Somebody didn't get their way, and the officers were completely justified," Pelowski said.

He said he has never seen a complaint involving excessive force.

Thomas said the department has hired 40 officers in the last year and a half and tested 600 to 800 people for those positions. Applicants perceived to be aggressive, short-tempered or rude will be passed over, the chief said.

"I'm pretty pleased overall. I'm extremely proud of this department and the people in it. A lot of citizen complaints are absolutely untrue. We try very hard in the selection process to make sure the individual is capable of working here," Thomas said.

Schindler has been a commander for eight years and has 29 years with the department. He said each complaint is taken very seriously and investigated to the fullest. The complaining party and any witnesses he or she produces are interviewed, along with the officer and any witnesses he selects.

The process can take up to 30 days. After findings are made, a recommendation is made to the chief who makes the ultimate decision, Schindler said.

"It starts out with recruiting. We only invite the best to be part of our organization. Our vision is to be a trusted, professional organization renown for exceptional ethical service," Schindler said.

The state government code prohibits divulging any details of an internal affairs investigation, Schindler said.

The Modesto Police Department investigated 74 complaints against officers last year and 68 the previous year. Ten of these complaints were sustained by the department's internal affairs unit.

Associate Editor Doane Yawger can be reached at 209-385-2485 or dyawger@mercedsun-star.com.

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