Joining forces key to crime fighting in Modesto area

Last week's re-election of Sheriff Adam Christianson and District Attorney Birgit Fladager set Stanislaus County's law enforcement leadership for the next four years.

Now comes the hard part.

Severe budget cuts have forced dozens of layoffs and reduced funding at law enforcement agencies throughout the county, and officials say there's more belt-tightening to come.

More than ever, agencies will have to rely on each other to conduct large enforcement operations. They don't have the personnel they need to carry out those efforts independently.

Christianson said it's vital to maintain good working relationships between the agencies in the county at a time when patrols are stretched thin and cost-cutting efforts force the early release of jail and prison inmates.

"We're going to have to be sharing the costs and the resources," he said.

He said partnerships are in place and are being strengthened to better respond to broad public safety threats, such as gang violence.

On Wednesday, about 150 law enforcement officials from several agencies served search warrants at 10 locations and arrested 18 people as part of a push to disrupt criminal activity by the Norteños street gang in Stanislaus County.

The operation was led by the Central Valley Gang Impact Task Force, a federally funded group that includes investigators from local law enforcement agencies and the FBI.

"There's almost no way one agency can do it alone, especially something major like (Wednesday's gang sweep)," Fladager said.

She said law enforcement executives in Stanislaus County, including FBI officials, meet monthly to discuss public safety issues.

They have been brainstorming for ideas on how they can regionalize their efforts and make their operations more efficient to cut costs.

Fladager said one idea being kicked around is to create a single evidence facility for all agencies in the county. Currently, each agency maintains one of its own.

"You won't have to have so many people taking care of the evidence, and you can save money," Fladager said.

She said executives also are discussing an idea to create a countywide Special Weapons and Tactics team. The county team would be made up of SWAT officers from each agency, which could mean cutting personnel costs or reassigning SWAT team members to patrol duties. Four agencies in the county have SWAT teams -- Modesto, Ceres, Turlock and the Sheriff's Department.

Even clerical managers from the law enforcement agencies are meeting regularly to find ways to streamline the paperwork process, Fladager said. Their strategies could ease the workload for clerical staffers who are also stretched thin because of layoffs.

The enforcement of a court- imposed gang injunction in south Modesto has police officers, sheriff's deputies, probation officers and parole agents looking for violators among the targeted Deep South Side Norteños.

The district attorney's office prosecutes violations of the injunction against gang members, sending them to jail when they break its terms.

Other successful partnerships include the Stanislaus County Auto Theft Task Force and the Stanislaus Drug Enforcement Agency.

Modesto Police Chief Mike Harden said criminals don't work in just one jurisdiction, so agencies have to communicate with each other. The budget cuts, he said, can't be used as an excuse for failure.

"We need partnerships in a real way that give us the ability to share information," Harden said. "We have a community that wants a certain level of quality service and doesn't want to listen to us quiver or snivel."

Harden's department stands to lose eight officers this summer as the city balances its budget. That would bring the number of sworn officers to 234, down from 287 three years ago.

He said it helps to know Christianson and Fladager will remain at their jobs for an additional four years.

Fladager ran unopposed in her re-election bid for district attorney, while Christianson beat his challenger, Turlock police Capt. Rob Jackson.

Newly hired or elected law enforcement executives have to learn the job as they go, Harden said, and taking the helm of an agency with budget cuts and layoffs would've made that task even tougher.

"The good thing is that I've known (Christianson and Fladager) for a long time," Harden said. "We've ascended through the ranks and we recognize what it was like be out there working at the street level."

Now, they're dealing with issues on a much larger scale, and familiarity plays a big role for executives looking to other agencies for support.

"Those relationships are incredibly valuable," Christianson said. "There are places in California where the sheriff doesn't talk to the police chief, doesn't work with the probation department, doesn't work with parole, doesn't work with the CHP."

Stanislaus Chief Probation Officer Jerry Powers relies heavily on other agencies to carry out large probation search operations, such as one conducted two weeks ago in northeast Stanislaus County.

The operation, which resulted in 12 arrests, was led by sheriff's Detective Mark Copeland and Deputy Probation Officer Nil Saing working together out of the Riverbank police station.

Powers said probation officers will be able to closely monitor only one out of three probationers, so the large search operations are crucial.

"We currently have 50 probation officers in the field, and there are 8,000 probationers throughout the county," Powers said. "We can't be there all the time; it's just not physically or financially possible."

If the agencies in the county were not working together, "none of us would be anywhere near as effective as we are, especially today," Powers said. "The only way we're going to survive is to stretch our resources and share them."

Bee staff writer Rosalio Ahumada can be reached at or 578-2394.