Nearly half of all violent crimes in Merced County are never solved, which is still better than the state average.
A review of law enforcement clearance rates from 2003 to 2012 shows Merced County agencies solved 57 percent of all violent crimes. That was better than the state’s 44 percent clearance rate during that period.
In the decade preceding 2013, data shows Merced County law enforcement agencies solved violent crimes at a rate more than 10 percent above the state average, with the exception of 2012, the last year data was reported. That year, the county’s total clearance rate fell dramatically, but local officials believe 2012 was likely an anomaly, not the beginning of a downward trend.
Clearance rates measure the number of cases solved by arrest and prosecution compared to the number of cases reported, according to the California Justice Department, one of several agencies tracking law enforcement data in the United States.
During the decade preceding 2013, Merced County law enforcement agencies reported a total of 15,679 violent crimes – homicides, rapes, robberies and aggravated assaults – and cleared 8,916 of those cases, nearly 57 percent. During that same time, the statewide clearance average on violent crime cases was about 44 percent, according to Justice Department statistics.
For nine consecutive years, law enforcement agencies in Merced County solved violent cases at a rate well above the state average, at times as much as 20 percent bette, until 2012.
That year, Merced’s total clearance rate for violent crimes fell to 44 percent, compared to the state’s 43 percent.
Law enforcement agencies say they are doing the best they can with the resources they have.
“I think what we saw in 2012 was the result of many things, including several years of layoffs in 2009, 2010 and 2011,” Merced police Chief Norman Andrade said. “All agencies were impacted by the economy, and there were other contributors like AB 109. All those things mean fewer cops and more crooks on the streets.”
Assembly Bill 109 shifted responsibility for low-risk inmates from the state to counties.
For nearly a decade, the Merced County Sheriff’s Department had the highest clearance rate for violent crimes in Merced County, at 72 percent. That percentage was also the highest among regional sheriff’s departments and the fourth best in the San Joaquin Valley.
Los Banos police had the second highest success rate in the county during that time at nearly 68 percent, placing them sixth overall in the Valley. Atwater police followed a close third in the county and seventh in the Valley at 66 percent. Dos Palos finished fourth in the county at 58 percent; followed by Gustine at 54 percent; and Livingston at 52 percent.
Merced police had the lowest clearance rate for violent crimes of the 24 reporting agencies in the San Joaquin Valley at about 41 percent, just below the state average of about 44 percent.
Fewer violent crimes solved
Over the past decade, the Merced County Sheriff’s Department had the fourth highest clearance rate for violent crimes in the San Joaquin Valley and the highest among other sheriff’s departments in the region at better than 72 percent.
But those numbers tumbled in 2012 when the department solved just 44 percent of its violent cases, which was just about the state average.
Deputy Delray Shelton, the Sheriff’s Department spokesman, agreed with Andrade’s assessment of law enforcement cutbacks. “I absolutely believe those numbers are a direct reflection of a substantial reduction in workforce,” Shelton said. “Not only having fewer deputies, but the deputies we have also took significant pay cuts.”
The Sheriff’s Department has lost more than a dozen positions since the economic downturn in 2008, Shelton said.
Additionally, total violent crime reports in 2012 climbed to the highest level of that period with 544 total cases. It was the only year during the decade the number of reports rose above 500 cases for the Sheriff’s Department.
Although 2012 was a bad year for many law enforcement agencies, Shelton said, residents should note that for nearly a decade the Sheriff’s Department cleared violent crime cases at a rate significantly above the state average.
“We’re starting to be able to rehire some of those lost positions now,” Shelton said. “Residents should know that we’re already on our way to returning our numbers to the same exemplary standards we have reported in previous years.”
As the largest city in Merced County, city police handled more violent crime than all other agencies in the county over the decade preceding 2013. The Merced Police Department’s rate of solving violent crimes during that time fluctuated near the state average of just above 40 percent.
The department also lost more than a dozen positions to cutbacks during roughly that same time frame, Capt. Tom Trindad confirmed.
Merced also saw a dramatic spike in violent crime in 2012, with 810 cases reported, compared with 503 the year before. The city’s solve rate dropped marginally from about 40 percent in 2011 to about 37 percent in 2012.
The Justice Department numbers do not include 2013 statistics, which show a significant drop in Part 1 crimes in Merced, Andrade said.
Part 1 crimes are tracked by the FBI and include the same violent crimes tracked by the state Justice Department, but also include burglary, car theft, arson and total theft, the chief said.
Those numbers indicate the city is heading in the right direction. In 2012, the department cleared just under 20 percent of its Part 1 crimes, but in 2013, preliminary numbers show their rate of solving those crimes climbed to about 28 percent, Andrade said.
“We’re always happy to see better clearance rates,” Andrade said. “I think we’re doing a better job, working smarter, using data-driven policing and working with the community.
Sgt. Scott Skinner, head of the department’s Major Crimes Unit, noted statistics don’t always tell the full story.
Frequently, investigators know who committed the crime, but don’t have physical evidence or cooperating witnesses to make the arrest. And even when they do solve a case, officers don’t always get the statistics to show for it.
“Burglary cases are a good example of that,” Skinner said.
Officers frequently arrest suspects in a home burglary, but have only enough evidence to charge that person with possession of stolen property.
“Unless we have evidence that can put them at the home, we can’t charge them with burglary, even though we know they’re absolutely the guys who did it,” Skinner said. “So, the case is solved and the property gets recovered, which is the most important part, but, for us, the case remains open because we didn’t charge the burglary, only the possession of stolen property.”
Consistency in Atwater
The Atwater Police Department’s rate for solving violent crime remained above 62 percent for the decade preceding 2013, the most consistently high average in the county.
The department’s success rate on violent crimes was the seventh highest in the San Joaquin Valley during that time.
Even when violent crimes spiked in 2012, Atwater police solved those cases at nearly the same pace. In 2011, Atwater solved about 65 percent of its violent cases and 62 percent in 2012.
Lt. Samuel Joseph said the department is proud of its numbers, crediting dedicated officers and resident cooperation.
“I think we’ve earned the public’s trust, from the chief to the people at our front counter,” he said. “We have a lot of good, talented officers who work hard for the chief.”
Atwater maintained a consistently high average, despite recent years of economic belt-tightening affecting every law enforcement agency in the state. Atwater police still have about 10 unfilled officer positions, but a recent voter-approved tax increase for public safety was designed to help increase staffing.
Good stats no help for some victims’ families
While law enforcement in Merced County has reported a mostly high success rate for violent crimes, those numbers do nothing to comfort families victimized by criminals who, in some cases, get away with murder.
“It’s terrible that these people are still on the streets somewhere,” Desiree Parreira said.
Parreira’s daughter, Samantha, was one of three teenagers shot and killed March 30 at a party on Westside Boulevard, near Atwater. Merced County sheriff’s investigators have said the shooting started at the party after rival gang members got into an argument.
“She was just an innocent bystander,” Parreira said. “I get so frustrated; I mean, it’s going on a year now already, and I struggle because I don’t know what’s going on. I go down and speak with detectives and it’s just, ‘We haven’t got nothing, yet.’ ”
She remains hopeful that somebody will come forward and cooperate with investigators.
“I know people are scared, but it means a lot to a lot of people, it just means so much,” she said. “Don’t be scared no more or none of this is going to get better.”