Merced officer fired into a car as a man fled, letter says. Here’s how he was disciplined

Pursuit in Merced

Merced authorities chase man into Franklin area of Mercd
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Merced authorities chase man into Franklin area of Mercd

A Merced police officer last year was demoted after an investigation found he unnecessarily rammed an assailant’s car and fired a gun into it as the driver sped away, the Merced Sun-Star has learned.

A Merced officer for nearly a dozen years, William Avery was employed as a field training officer by the Merced Police Department on Sept. 21, 2017, when he began pursuing 33-year-old Atwater resident John Barragan in a high-speed chase, according to police.

The letter lists four policies related to use of force, deadly force, safety and an officer’s responsibilities that Avery violated based on the department’s determination.

“At the time you fired your weapon, there was no evidence of an immediate threat made by the suspect against your life or the life of others,” the letter says. “Your actions were not in compliance with the above stated Merced Police Department Policies.”

Requests for comment from the Merced Police Officers Union and Avery himself were not returned this week.

Avery took over the pursuit from another officer about 1:28 p.m. in the area of G Street and Olive Avenue, according to police. Traveling west, Barragan cut through the Jack in the Box parking lot near M Street and drove onto Fairfield Drive.

He struck the center divider on M Street near Fairfield, police said. Barragan backed up but stopped short of the police cruiser, according to the letter.

Avery then rammed Barragan’s car before getting out of the cruiser. He fired “several shots” into Barragan’s car as the man drove away, the letter says.

The pursuit continued and police said Barragan ran from his vehicle in the area of Belcher Avenue and W. Santa Fe. Officers surrounded the area and captured him a short time later, hiding in the backyard of a home just off Franklin Road.

He was sentenced in September 2017 to serve 16 months in state prison after pleading no contest to a single felony count of evading peace officers about a week after being arrested.

California has had some of the most stringent protections for police privacy in the country for many years. Under a new police transparency law that went into effect on Jan. 1, Senate Bill 1421, disciplinary actions and findings related to use of force, dishonesty and sexual assault carried out by officers is now part of the public record.

Avery was found to have violated personnel rules and showed neglect for safety, according to the disciplinary letter issued on Aug. 2 by the Merced Police Department and signed by Chief Chris Goodwin. The letter stripped Avery of his field training officer ranking, which includes a 5 percent hit to his salary, and required him to attend training classes.

Avery is still employed in Merced, now as a senior officer at $83,383 a year, according to the Human Resources Department.

Police Chief Chris Goodwin said he was a captain at the time of the incident that happened shortly before former Chief Norm Andrade retired. Goodwin was promoted to chief, which he said drug out the process. Use-of-force investigations do not typically take a year, he said.

The investigation into Avery was initiated by the department itself, he said, noting it did not originate from a citizen’s complaint. The department conducts investigations on all officer-involved shootings and incorporates a review board, he said.

“What we’re doing as a police department is making sure our officers are doing what they’re trained to do,” he said. “They’re doing what our policy tells them to do.”

“That’s the checks and balances we’re doing,” he said. “And this is the perfect example of that.”

Avery was required to take training classes related to pursuit, use of force and other topics. Goodwin said Avery has since completed those requirements.