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Statistics reflect little change in crime rate

Police held the line or made advances against major crimes in 2007 and Merced is a safer city now, Merced Police Chief Russ Thomas said Monday.

Murders and robberies dipped slightly last year in Merced compared with 2006 totals while small increases were posted in 2007 for rape, aggravated assault, burglary, theft and stolen cars, an annual report prepared by Thomas shows.

Local crime statistics for 2007 are sent to the state Department of Justice (DOJ) and the FBI for nine major categories. Merced data mirrors national figures, which show violent crimes dropped 1.8 percent in the first six months of last year in the United States.

Thomas said local figures reflect a small downward decline in crime. He said Merced is safer because there is a "much more physical presence" by officers around town, coupled with phenomenal arrest rates by detectives and patrol officers.

"I think these are very good numbers," Thomas said. "It's remarkable we have been able to keep the crime rate where it's at. This department has done a remarkable job and is getting better all the time."

In 2007, there were seven murders in Merced compared to nine in 2006; 152 robberies contrasted with 165 the year before and 28 rapes, compared with 23 in 2006. Burglaries rose from 819 in 2006 to 833 last year and thefts increased by five last year, to 2,619.

Major crimes overall declined citywide from 5,418 in 2006 to 5,393 in 2007 a 0.46 percent drop, Lance Eber, management analyst, reported. Merced's population grew 8 percent last year to about 79,000 residents.

Thomas said he has always heard people say South Merced has the biggest crime incidence of any part in town but that's not borne out by statistics. Crime declined 1.1 percent in South Merced last year and that area only accounted for 19.84 percent of the major crimes in 2007. Major crimes dropped 3.1 percent last year in North Merced but rose 2.9 percent in central Merced.

Merced City Council member Jim Sanders, president of the Merced Community Action Network, which runs Neighborhood Watch programs in the city, said the police department deserves kudos for keeping crimes under control. He said it's a good thing there were no big spikes in major crimes last year.

Sanders said residents are seeing the effects of passage of Measure C, the sales tax initiative that funds more police officers on the street. There also has been a "huge growth" in the number of Neighborhood Watch groups fighting crime in their neighborhoods, he added.

The "huge" word came up again. Thomas said the police department has been in a "huge training curve" lately with 67 percent of the patrol staff having less than two years' experience and nine of 11 supervisors having just one year supervisory experience.

With new officers gaining experience this year, crime trends should dip considerably in the next year or so with heightened policing, the chief predicted.

Thirteen field training officers, veterans on the force, now are mentoring new patrolmen, which takes away from the ability of these seasoned officers to use all their talents in fighting crime. With the last 11 new officers now in field training and soon to be on their own, Thomas expects to see significant downward trends in major crime on future DOJ and FBI reports.

Lt. Bimley West of the department's Investigations Division said at least 80 percent of all crime categories were resolved by arrests by detectives and patrol officers. Investigators and officers on the beat are collaborating on cases and this is being reflected by increased arrests.

"Our detectives are becoming wizards at developing leads where there were none. We'll get even better," Thomas said.

West said most rape cases were cleared by arrest and all but three murders were solved through arrests. He said beefed-up patrols, proactive policing and cooperation from citizens reporting suspicious activities should reduce the number of armed robberies in the future.

Merced's report doesn't appear to show dramatic spikes in any particular area, Merced County District Attorney Larry Morse II said. Statistics fall within expected ranges and Morse said he tries not to live on a month-to-month basis.

"We're making progress long-term," Morse said. "We made important strides in 2007 which will pay dividends in future years. We are putting into place preventive measures and have begun to lay the groundwork."

The combination of a new countywide gang task force, heightened cooperation among law enforcement agencies and community outreach efforts should make a difference, Morse said.

Thomas is proud of the Gang Violence Suppression Unit's efforts to reel in criminals and that 90 graffiti vandals were arrested last year. He said these high arrest rates aren't reflected in initial crime statistics.

Eber has worked with the police department for nine months crunching crime numbers. Thomas hopes to use Eber's statistical skills to develop predictions where certain repetitive crimes, like auto theft, burglary and shoplifting, are likely to occur and then develop resources to head these crimes off before they take place.

These prediction capabilities are in their infancy now, Thomas said, but it is hoped police might be able to warn certain businesses, for example, that they could be targeted by criminals.

Sadly, crimes like rape, assault and murders can't be predicted.

Cmdr. Norm Andrade said as time goes on Merced's police officers will become more proactive than reactive. Twelve times during 2007 the Safe Streets Act was utilized by residents to make their neighborhoods safer and Neighborhood Watch programs have been increasing.

Cmdr. Jeff Schindler said more modern technology, including computer units in patrol cars, is helping officers work more efficiently and effectively.

Cmdr. Floyd Higdon, in his first day replacing retired Cmdr. Tom Martin, said several different neighborhoods are working hard to clean up their own areas. Higdon and other officers are meeting with the apartment managers association to provide more recreational opportunities for youth and make their communities safer and better.

Among the proactive steps police have taken are foot and bicycle patrols downtown and other areas, specialized patrols at the weekly farmers markets and the Merced County Fairgrounds, Higdon said.

Thomas said all members of the force have bought into the department's mission statement and share the same vision. Officers are learning to work together better and sharing information through various networking opportunities.

U.S. Department of Justice officials said preliminary figures indicate that, as a whole, law enforcement agencies throughout the nation reported a decrease of 1.8 percent in the number of violent crimes brought to their attention in the first half of 2007 when compared with figures reported for the first six months of 2006.

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

By the numbers

Crime statistics in Merced in 2007 compared to 2006 provided by the Merced Police Department

CRIME 2006 2007

Murder 9 7

Rape 23 28

Robbery 165 152

Agg. assault 407 423

other assault 873 813

Burglary 819 833

Larceny 2,614 2,619

Car theft 446 455

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