Overall reported crime down nearly 27 percent in Merced

Overall reported crime in the city of Merced plummeted nearly 27 percent in 2013, a dramatic turnaround from the prior year, when crime shot up 25 percent, the city’s latest statistics show.

According to the Merced Police Department’s crime data, compiled by analyst Lance Eber, there were 3,925 Part 1 crimes in 2013, compared with 5,356 in 2012, a 26.72 percent decrease. Part 1 crimes include murder, rape, robbery, assault, burglary, theft, auto theft and arson.

Violent crime in Merced decreased by 1.5 percent overall, with 1,185 incidents reported in 2013. Property crimes dropped 36.31 percent last year, with 2,645 reported incidents in 2013.

Police officials note the statistics include only reported crimes documented by law enforcement. Many victims often do not report crimes.

Although there were 29 homicides reported countywide in 2013, the city of Merced’s homicides were nearly cut in half last year, with five deaths reported, compared to nine the prior year.

Among the city’s 2013 crime numbers, reports of rape went down 26.92 percent, with 19 incidents reported in 2013, compared with 26 the prior year. Robberies fell 37.67 percent in 2013, with 134 incidents reported last year.

Merced police Chief Norm Andrade said he’s happy to see the Part 1 crime numbers drop, although statistics are often a “roller coaster ride” with peaks and valleys. “I am very happy to see (the numbers) go down, but at the same time I understand they could go up at any time depending on the economy and the number of people (the department) has,” he said.

Andrade said his officers have been working hard on doing a “fantastic job” despite a significantly depleted police force, which was affected by the recession.

The department has 77 sworn officers to police a city of more than 80,000 people, compared with 84 officers last year. Seven years ago, the department had 111 sworn officers.

The officers and support staff “deserve all the credit in the world for doing this. They have been working understaffed, and they are working smarter, because we do use technology to help us out, as to where to fight crime,” Andrade said.

“Our guys have been very assertive in going out and picking up people and trying to deter crime,” he added.

The chief also credited his department’s gang unit and its collaboration with other agencies, such as the county’s Multi-Agency Gang Task Force. Andrade said gangs remain a primary factor in crime across the board, and the gang unit’s efforts over the years toward gathering intelligence on individual gang members and their activities has yielded positive results.

The gang unit made 931 arrests in 2013, 773 of which were adults, and 158 were juveniles. The 931 arrests were of 530 persons, 24 of whom were arrested five or more times, Andrade said.

“The (gang) shot-callers are in prison. They are directing the gangs in the streets what to do and when to do it. It’s big business, people need to understand that,” Andrade said.

“It’s not, you know, this little gang that sits on the corner. It’s big business. This is serious business and people get killed over it,” he continued. “And we are doing everything we can to combat that. It’s a dangerous business for these gang officers.”

While talking about crime, Andrade mentioned his disagreement with a recent study by NeighborhoodScout that listed Merced as No. 88 on a list of top 100 most dangerous cities in the United States.

The real estate information group gathered data on cities with more than 25,000 residents and calculated the number of violent crimes per 100,000 residents, based on FBI statistical reports, according to its website. The group said the study was based on 2012 crime data.

Andrade questioned the accuracy of the report, and how the group arrived at its conclusions.

“Our people have done one heck of a job in reducing crime. So for them to say that the city of Merced is one of the worst places, that’s wrong,” Andrade said. “Countywide, we do have some issues. Fighting gangs, I will tell you, in my city, I’ve made sure that (we’ve done) everything we can possibly do, and I am always looking for more ways because we know that is a true problem.”

Merced County District Attorney Larry Morse II said he found the city’s drop in crime encouraging. As a resident of Merced, Morse said, he has seen an improvement in reducing crime in the city.

“It does feel better to me. It feels like I see more things going on in downtown Merced. I get a sense that we’re turning some corners, and I am very optimistic. You can’t get complacent or cocky about it, but I feel things are moving in a good direction,” he said.

Morse has been very critical of how much money Merced County devotes to fighting gangs.

Earlier this week, Morse had sharp comments for the Board of Supervisors, saying at the county government level there’s been no organized gang strategy or response to gang violence, despite the presence of more than 5,000 validated gang members in Merced County.

However, Morse said the city of Merced has benefited greatly from having a gang unit in place for nearly 20 years, and he’s hoping the Police Department’s efforts are bearing fruit.

“If you really target violent crime and do it aggressively, you are going to get the desired results,” Morse said. “(The Merced gang unit) knows who to go to, to prevent problems before they happen and solve them after they do.”

There were some crime categories and subcategories with significant increases, however.

Merced reported an 80 percent increase in arson last year, with 103 incidents reported in 2013. Andrade said most of the incidents are smaller dumpster and trash can fires.

Assault in the city went up 7.76 percent in 2013. The number of assaults in which a gun was used as a weapon rose 16.67 percent in 2013, with 56 incidents reported. The assaults with guns category includes incidents with a shooting victim or an intended target.

The number of assaults in which a knife or a cutting instrument was used went down 11.36 percent in 2013, with 39 incidents reported last year, compared with 44 in 2012.

Andrade said his department will add some new officers to its ranks in the near future. The department currently has three officers in its field-training program who should be ready for work as solo beat officers by mid-February.

Three additional officers were sworn in Friday, and will be entering the field-training program to prepare them for the job over the next three months. The department is budgeted for 88 officers, and currently has five openings.

“We are doing backgrounds right now to hopefully fill the five positions,” Andrade said. “I am being very selective with who I pick.”