Merced County law enforcement failing, report says

Merced County is failing at curbing mass incarceration, upholding police accountability and preventing gun violence, according to a report issued from PICO National Network.

The report, done in conjunction with the nonprofit Merced Organizing Project, gave the county and city of Merced failing grades across the board. The report calls for law enforcement leaders to adopt a number of practices locally that have led to improvements in other parts of the state and the country, according to the report’s authors.

Blacks in Merced are almost four times more likely to be in jail than whites, according to the report. Though they make up 3.4 percent of the overall population, blacks made up 13.1 percent of the jail population in 2014, the report says.

Read Next

Andrea Marta, a campaign manager with PICO National Network, said her organization looked at 19 counties across the country for the report.

“We consistently hear from our local leaders about the impacts of the criminal justice system, police accountability and gun violence on their lives,” she said. “Oftentimes, trying to find data on exactly what’s happening inside the criminal justice system is very, very hard.”

From 1985 to 2014, the per-capita jail population in Merced County increased by 16 percent, from 2.54 to 2.95 incarcerated people per 1,000 residents, the report says.

The number of women incarcerated increased by 274 percent in that same time, the report said. Six of 10 inmates behind bars in Merced in 2014, the report said, had not been convicted of any crime.

Victoria Castillo, an organizer with the Merced Organizing Project, or MOP, headed up the sections of the report with local numbers. The report also was written in conjunction with professors from University of Wisconsin, Rutgers University and other researchers.

Castillo said the report is meant to spark dialogue between the community and law enforcement officials.

“We would like to get all of our leaders in a place where we can have this conversation,” she said.

Castillo said local elected officials and law enforcement heads need to adopt best practices in policing and jail reform shown to make progress in other communities.

The report outlines changes made in cities around the nation that have led to a decrease in gun violence, loosening on the restrictions of probationers returning to society, and better relations between police and the community, among other reforms.

During a news conference Tuesday outside the Merced County Sheriff’s Office, Castillo read from the complaints of inmates held in the Merced County jail. Castillo’s husband, Richard Yanez Castillo, is being held in the jail while he fights a charge from 2013 of evading law enforcement, she said.

Sheriff Vern Warnke pushed back Friday at many of the claims in the report, noting Castillo’s relationship to someone being held in the jail.

“(Jail) is not supposed to be a comfortable place. They’re not going to get recliners,” he said. “If they want that, they can stay out of trouble.”

The report says no law enforcement officers in Merced County go through the state attorney general’s implicit-bias training, which deals with stereotypes surrounding people of different ethnicities.

Warnke brushed off that claim, saying officers go through all the training required by the state.

“We’re meeting all the standards that are set forth,” he said.

Thaddeus Miller: 209-385-2453, @thaddeusmiller

Related stories from Merced Sun-Star