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Gang task force works quickly to stem violence

Still in its infancy, Merced County's new gang task force already has made 165 arrests even as officers get to know each other and the scope of the problems they are facing.

While total elimination of criminal street gangs may be a tough goal to achieve, task force leaders are confident they can disrupt -- and disable -- gang activities. One of the ways they are doing this is by gathering an intelligence database that lists gang members, their leaders, locations and the crimes they habitually commit.

By identifying gang leadership, it is hoped the gangs' infrastructure can be broken down and ultimately the gang will cease to exist.

Merced County District Attorney Larry Morse II says he is "cautiously optimistic" about the task force's future and its viability.

"We are not going to solve the gang problem overnight," Morse said. "It's an ongoing battle, but we are making it increasingly tough for gang members to operate in Merced County. A lot of this is having a law enforcement network, identifying the ringleaders and interrupting some of their activities."

Formed Oct. 1, the eight-member Merced Multi-Agency Gang Task Force has made 87 felony arrests, 78 misdemeanor arrests, conducted 102 probation searches and served 10 search warrants that resulted in the confiscation of guns, methamphetamine and marijuana.

Los Banos Police Chief Chris Gallagher, who oversees the task force, said the fledgling agency's arrest figures represent very good numbers, especially considering the officers spent some time initially getting familiar with each other and their mission.

"They've done very well to come up with positive results," Gallagher said. "In places, gang problems are quite serious. In general, this county is very reflective of the rest of the state."

Val Pacheco is the task force commander and a special agent supervisor with the state Bureau of Narcotics Enforcement, part of the state Department of Justice. He is pleased with the working relationships that are developing between the task force and local law enforcement agencies.

Pacheco said if the task force continues working as a team, it won't mean simply pushing gang members from one town to another in the county.

"It's an uphill battle but we're in it for the long haul," Pacheco said. "One of the long-term goals of the task force is developing a local database of gang members, which will prove beneficial countywide."

Along with the arrest statistics, Gallagher said the task force also has validated 80 gang members. That means officers have located and identified people who they may encounter later in specific criminal investigations. If these individuals commit crimes, gang enhancements can be added to the charges they face.

Morse said the countywide task force was launched to help law enforcement agencies coordinate intelligence gathering and enforcement actions against gang members. It is comprised of officers from the Merced County Sheriff's Department, Merced, Atwater, Los Banos and Livingston police departments, the county Probation Department and District Attorney's office.

Gallagher said the task force is a partnership with the state Bureau of Narcotic Enforcement, one of only six such arrangements between state and local law enforcement agencies in California.

Pacheco, from the BNE office in Fresno, was recently selected to command the unit, and "has done an outstanding job of directing the activities of the Task Force." Gallagher said.

"We are here to assist any agency that calls for our help," Pacheco said. "We have tools and information at our disposal that local agencies might not have readily available. We are excited about the prospect of really making a difference in Merced County's battle against gangs."

Morse said the task force's initial results represent outstanding numbers, better than anyone culd have hoped.

"This underscores how necessary the task force is. It was recognized that law enforcement needed to work together and pool its resources, developing a cohesive strategy to stop the spread of gangs," Morse said.

The district attorney is grateful that participating police departments didn't just send rookie officers to the task force. The unit's members all are seasoned officers already familiar with the workings of gangs.

Gallagher said he believes the unit has begun turning the tide in the county's battle against the spread of criminal street gangs. The task force's primary responsibilities are to assist local jurisdictions in identifying gang members and respond with them to gang-related incidents.

The gang task force has assisted sheriff's detectives and detectives from Merced, Atwater and Dos Palos police departments in investigating three gang-related homicides and two attempted homicides.

"We are continuing to fine tune our response capabilities and I think all the chiefs are confident we're moving in the right direction," Gallagher said.

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

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