Police chief details effort to improve public safety

Police Chief Steven Stanfield

Steven Stanfield has a lot on his plate right now. The Merced Police Department’s new chief, who started here Oct. 30, is addressing multiple critical issues each day, including motorists who flagrantly blow through red traffic signals, using an old police station that is simply too small, keeping officers here when pay or working conditions might be better elsewhere, and building rapport with a community that is welcome and accepting.

Merced residents’ main concern is traffic violators, particularly people who race through intersections well after the signal has turned red. He plans on ordering new signals that identify red light violators and bringing the department’s traffic unit back to its previous strengths. Three people, either pedestrians or bicyclists, have died this year when they were struck by red light violators. This was a topic of major concern at one of the city’s recent Town Hall sessions with local residents.

“Red light cameras reduce crashes and agencies which have them report they are successful. Enforcement is just one aspect. It’s a matter of education. I have listened to the community and we need to get to a point where streets are safer for us,” Stanfield says.

Stanfield, who turns 50 on June 26, runs a police force that has 98 sworn officers and 42 non-sworn support personnel. He is going to start with two new red-light signals and go from there. Officers are looking at intersections with the most traffic collisions. The first candidate for new signals is the very busy intersection of 16th and R streets.

“Everybody’s in a hurry and there is no fear about being pulled over and getting a ticket. They also are driving while distracted. This is going to change and we have to change the culture of driving habits. I am going to go to the Merced City Council soon for new signals. Some areas with those new signals have seen a 50 to 60 percent reduction in accidents. Citizens need to feel safe when they enter these intersections,” Stanfield stresses.

When Stanfield started there were an average of 80 motor vehicle citations issued in a month’s time. That has now gone up to 300 to 400 each month. There are four qualified motorcycle officers right now and Stanfield is hoping to be able to place six officers on the streets whose main job is traffic-related.

Stanfield believes the community loves its police department and he wants to grow that feeling.

Stanfield wants to hold an open house and will keep listening to residents’ concerns.

An unpopular subject cropping up at various times in this country is shootings involving officers. Keeping these incidents low is of utmost priority for the chief and his command staff but he concedes shootings are inevitable when dealing with law enforcement.

“Often police work is just ugly. We don’t see people on their best days. We have to evaluate each critical incident and take them very seriously, reviewing and analyzing the circumstances within 72 hours,” Stanfield says.

No major shootings have taken place recently and Stanfield’s fervent goal is to keep building good relationships between the community and the police department.

“We want officers to make every attempt to avoid force and get a peaceful resolution to the problem. We want to bring less-lethal force. These tools can be bean bag shotguns or tasers,” he says. Developing the right combination of training and providing tools so officers can do their jobs safely is paramount.

The entire police department is being certified in autism awareness and will be only the second such police agency is the state so certified. That will mean each officer will have to take a test on autism and attend at least two hours of training.

Stanfield says the number of armed robberies in Merced is down 20 percent in the first three months this year, a significant reduction from the same time last year. The number of serious assault cases also is down 30 percent in the first quarter of this year compared to the same time last year.

“We are paying attention to where crime is occurring and want to make sure we allocate resources where they are needed. We are trying to be more efficient and put officers in the right location at the right time,” Stanfield says.

Technology helps in this regard.

The department now has two blue light cameras which can be positioned anywhere in the city, giving real-time information and photographs of an area, likely a significant crime deterrent. He would like to have eight of these cameras eventually set up around Merced and notes this is bound to have an impact on crime in those areas.

Stanfield intends to split the city of Merced into four geographic areas, the northwest, northeast, central and southern portions of town, assigning one lieutenant to each area as a commander.

One of the big challenges of the Merced Police Department and other neighboring law enforcement agencies is staffing. He says it’s hard to retain officers in a competitive job market who might be inclined to seek work in Fresno or the San Francisco Bay Area.

“This is a great community to raise a family. A police job is not as desirable as it used to be. We are trying to change that culture, to make officers feel like they are working in a place supported by the administration. I can’t control pay and benefits but my job is to control the working environment,” he says.

Stanfield says the police department “has great talent here” and there are a lot of qualified individuals right in our own backyard.

He concedes the department’s headquarters at 611 W. 23rd St. is old and every conceivable space in the building is being utilized.

“This building is just too small. City Manager Scott O’Brien is open to conversations about building a new station. He understands it’s not going to be cheap,” Stanfield says. The chief is open to building a public safety campus which also could include the fire department, which also needs a new headquarters building.

In the department’s 2024-25 budget they will be adding civilian community service officers to the patrol division, who will be available to take reports from residents. This will reduce the response time in getting reports processed and ultimately solve crime more quickly.

One of Stanfield’s first tasks was analyzing ways to avoid potential flooding in this area, such as occurred here nearly 18 months ago during unseasonable rainfall periods. In 23 years of law enforcement experience in Modesto, he says he is familiar with this area’s needs and past flooding experiences.

More recently Stanfield has been meeting with Merced College and UC Merced officials about planning their upcoming graduation ceremonies.

Stanfield’s son is a dispatcher in Stanislaus County and his daughter is a reading intervention specialist there.

“This is the most friendly and welcoming community I have experienced. People are so gracious and so kind. I want officers to find ways to engage the community. Together we are going to get things done.”

City of Merced Police DepartmentMercedMerced County
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