Do whatever it takes to stop murders in Merced County

Photographs of murder victims are displayed during a victims’ rights ceremony at Courthouse Park in Merced Calif., Thursday, April 14, 2016.
Photographs of murder victims are displayed during a victims’ rights ceremony at Courthouse Park in Merced Calif., Thursday, April 14, 2016. akuhn@mercedsun-star.com

How bad is Merced’s murder crisis?

So bad that entire towns are frightened. So bad that Sheriff’s Office administrators must respond to homicide calls. So bad the district attorney is personally trying cases.

So bad that even gangsters are warning their families to stay away from Merced. Too dangerous.

Statistically, Merced County has become the murder capital of California. There were more murders per capita here than in any other jurisdiction in 2014. After 23 in 2012, there were 30 in 2013, then 32 in 2014. Counting this year, Merced County has endured 93 murders in four years. Our murder rate doubles the state average.

Is this really a crisis?

“A severe crisis,” said Sheriff Vern Warnke. “And our elected officials don’t seem to see it.”

This is unacceptable and any elected official not demanding explanations, insisting on solutions and working his or her damnedest to help stop the slaughter is not doing their job.

Tired of working behind the scenes, Warnke and District Attorney Larry Morse II appeared before the Board of Supervisors this week to demand action.

They attributed the spike in murders to greatly increased gang activity tied to narcotics and prostitution. When one gang steps on another’s turf, violence ensues.

“One of the last homicides we dealt with was linked to the Mexican mafia,” said Warnke. “It was a gunfight at 2:30 in the afternoon.”

The county has hired more deputies, but Warnke says he’s having trouble keeping the ones he’s got. In the past 18 months, he’s lost 15 of 80 officers – nearly a 20 percent turnover.

He’s reaching out to city police and the California Highway Patrol for help. A county/CHP sweep Thursday night recovered firearms from people who shouldn’t have them.

The problem, says Warnke, is that his department’s pay package has fallen far behind pay schedules offered in nearby counties; it’s roughly half what deputies can earn in coastal communities.

Deputies have been working without a contract for months. But this is no bargaining ploy; the numbers don’t lie. Ninety-three bodies prove it.

That’s why Morse and Warnke went to the board.

“I’ve just run out of patience,” said Morse. “I’ve been saying this for three years, and I’ve never had one member of the Board of Supervisors contact me. You’re the murder capital of California … and there has been no effort from elected officials to address it.”

That’s not exactly true. Morse and Warnke took the problem to Assemblyman Adam Gray, and he is seeking out state grants and programs to help the community confront the situation.

What more must be done?

First, this is a crisis – treat it like one. Recognize that being ground zero for gang violence is not just bad for people’s health, it’s bad for business. Who wants to locate in a gang war zone? Who wants to send their child to a campus next to a shooting gallery?

Second, give deputies a contract that will make them want to stay. No Valley county can afford salaries comparable to those in San Jose or Santa Clara. But offering comparable pay to Tracy or Fresno or even UC Merced is necessary. This is more of a long-term solution.

Third, dig into supervisors’ discretionary funds ($40,000 each per year) to provide a stipend – 15 or 20 percent – for being on the gang task force. Such a bonus might entice officers from other jurisdictions to come here. That would pay immediate dividends.

Fourth, convene a summit; invite parents of at-risk youths, clergy, law enforcement and representatives of state government. Perhaps Gray or Sen. Anthony Cannella could lead it, facilitating the search for solutions.

Finally, everyone in Merced County should let their supervisors know this is not acceptable. Those running for office must explain what they will do to stop the violence. Vote according to their answers.

We’ve had enough of living in California’s murder capital.