Change in booking procedures results in delays for Merced law enforcement

Bookings at the John Latorraca Correctional Center have caused serious delays for law enforcement agencies throughout Merced County.
SUN-STAR PHOTO BY MIKE NORTH Bookings at the John Latorraca Correctional Center have caused serious delays for law enforcement agencies throughout Merced County. Merced Sun-Star

It's been a week since the Merced County Sheriff's Department moved bookings to the John Latorraca Correctional Center from the Main Jail, and the new setup has proved problematic for officers.

Moving bookings to the less-capable Latorraca facility has caused serious delays for law enforcement.

Sheriff's officials said the delays could be the result of disgruntled correctional officers dragging their feet on the job, while correctional officers said the delays were the cause of severe cuts to staffing and resources -- the result of the county's $20 million budget shortfall.

For the Merced Police Department, bookings have taken three to four hours on several occasions, said Chief Norm Andrade.

"It's causing us some major issues," he said. "I'm hoping the county can rectify the situation very soon."

There have been instances where the department has had officers held up at the Latorraca facility when they could have been used for incidents in the city, Andrade said.

During the delays, officers have to stay in their cars with suspects since only one car is allowed in the booking area at a time, and nobody can go to the bathroom during the wait, Andrade said.

The Atwater Police Department has also had issues with the new system for bookings, said Chief Richard Hawthorne.

Officers have commonly been out of town for three and a half hours for a standard booking, taking them out of their beats when they could be used as backup for remaining officers, he said.

If it's decided that a detainee needs to go to the hospital, the added travel time and delays make it possible for an officer to spend half his shift on one booking, Hawthorne said.

"The sheriff has to do what he has to do in regard to the budget," Hawthorne said, adding that the Atwater Police Department has also been subject to budgetary woes.

The Latorraca facility is about 10 miles south of Merced.

Hawthorne is putting together an informational sheet for city council members asking them to contact the Board of Supervisors to request that they work with Sheriff Mark Pazin to move bookings back to the downtown Merced jail.

Sheriff's officials noted that much of the controversy is coming from correctional staff -- the same ones who control how long it takes to book someone.

Cmdr. James Buttrey, who oversees corrections for the department, said with only one corrections commander and six correctional sergeants, keeping on every employee all the time is a tough task. "People should have a professional ethic that they don't need to be kept on 24/7," Buttrey said.

Undersheriff Tom Cavallero said there are kinks that need to be worked out. "There are delays," Cavallero said. "We hope we can get past this. We're looking to fix a lot of these issues, but this is all new to us, and we're doing the best we can with what we've got."

The delays that keep officers from their beats are simply a staffing problem and aren't acceptable, said Jeff Miller, spokesman for the Merced County Sheriff's Employee Association, the union that represents correctional officers and security systems operators.

"This isn't working," he said. "This is why across-the-board cuts are not feasible. Certain aspects of public safety services just cannot afford to be cut in the same manner as non-safety related services."

Miller hopes the issues will be resolved soon.

"There's no excuse for what we are experiencing," he said. "It could have been, and should have been, avoided. Citizens can now only hope that that the Board of Supervisors give the sheriff the resources needed to run the corrections division safely and efficiently."

Buttrey said there will be an item brought before the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday that could bring relief to corrections by up to 10 employees. If passed, the increase to correctional staff could bring bookings back to the downtown Merced jail.

Reporter Mike North can be reached at (209) 385-2453 or mnorth@mercedsun-star.com.