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Sheriff proposes forming a second STAR team at $600,000 cost

Merced County's top law enforcement officer is looking for funding to create a second specialized unit that can quickly respond to major crimes and apprehend fugitives.

Sheriff Mark Pazin wants county supervisors to fund a second Sheriff's Tactical and Reconnaissance team, composed of four deputies and a sergeant. The additional STAR team, to cover evening hours, is expected to cost about $600,000 a year.

Pazin will meet with Chief Executive Officer Dee Tatum on the STAR proposal. There is no timetable when discussions may begin or when the matter might go back to the Merced County Board of Supervisors for a vote.

Undersheriff Bill Blake said the current STAR team, established in 2002, is an "incredibly effective and efficient" unit that can be deployed quickly to deal with pressing problems, such as drug-dealing in a certain area or arresting a wanted fugitive who has been recently spotted. The plainclothes deputies don't have regular caseloads or patrol beats and can be quickly deployed anywhere they are needed.

Pazin briefed supervisors Tuesday on the state of local law enforcement in 2007, detailing some of the 16 homicides deputies investigated during the year, current crime trends and the need for another STAR team to respond to a ruthless and resourceful criminal element.

Blake, second in command at the sheriff's department, praised the STAR team's work.

"It's like having a football team with depth," Blake said. "Detectives have a tremendous workload and what they do is tedious and time-consuming in most cases. They (STAR team) are Johnnie on the spot. They can respond to hot spots in a short amount of time, are good at tracking fugitives and adept at using electronics."

Sgt. Steve Sziraki, STAR team supervisor, estimated the STAR team probably averages 400 felony arrests a year. The unit now includes Sziraki, two deputies and a state parole officer.

"We stay very busy every day," Sziraki said. "Our main goal is fugitive apprehension and we go out looking for them. Whatever needs to be done, we go and do it."

Pazin said when the STAR team was established six years ago, there were 28,000 outstanding warrants waiting to be served. That number has since been whittled down by at least 43 percent but about 1,000 new arrest warrants are issued each month. He said the current STAR team is a big success.

"We need a highly mobile, trained task force that is proactive in stemming some violent issues. The criminal element is not afraid to take on badge-wearing uniformed officers," Pazin said.

Supervisor Deidre Kelsey expressed support for Pazin's plan. She said the county has added "thousands and thousands" of residents to her district, but staffing levels at the sheriff's department haven't gone up that much at all.

"We need to provide for the safety of our constituents," Kelsey said. "We need to do something and I'm interested in pursuing this proposal."

Supervisor Jerry O'Banion told Pazin the board would need to know exactly how much his proposal would cost.

"You know, you're not the only department in the county," O'Banion told Pazin. The sheriff said the response he received to his proposal was "very positive."

Blake said STAR team members can do high-risk stakeouts of criminals, work with the Major Crimes Unit in solving homicides, home invasion robberies and other serious offenses.

"They're the ones knocking on doors. It's a multi-purpose law enforcement unit, part of our strategy," Blake said.

Mark Hendrickson, the county's director of governmental affairs, said Pazin and Tatum would meet to analyze costs, potential benefits and other details involving a second STAR team. He had no estimate how long this process would take.

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

Reporter Corinne Reilly contributed to this report.

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