Merced County Times Newspaper
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City approves police upgrades after questions about the need

Members of the Merced City Council gathered at City Hall on Monday night to decide on a relatively routine lineup of agenda items, but a few matters involving the Merced Police Department took center stage with thought-provoking commentary by leaders and concerned residents.

In short:

• Leaders approved a new Caliber Flex Bomb Robot, in an amount not to exceed $196,448, with one-time funds already appropriated in the city budget.

• Leaders approved the purchase of three motorcycles for the MPD Traffic Division in the amount of $29,368 each, and this includes insurance reimbursement for one destroyed motorcycle with the same estimated value.

• Leaders approved a contract to obtain a Mobile Incident Communication Vehicle with a budget of $500,000 that will be funded by a  $573,636 state Prop 64 cannabis grant the department received authorization for last summer.

• Leaders approved a professional services agreement with the Lew Edwards Group for an amount not to exceed $84,000 to develop a public education strategy related to the possible extension of Measure C and the approval of a supplemental appropriation of $50,000 to support the overall project. Measure C is a voter approved general-purpose half-cent sales tax that went into effect in 2006 to support public safety services and local street projects. It sunsets in 2026.

However, on the three items concerning the bomb robot, the police motorcycles, and the Mobile Incident Communication vehicle, the vote was 5-1, with Council member Jesse Ornales voting NO on the items. Councilman Fernando Echevarria was not present.

Ornales — who was attending the meeting through a remote link after he tested positive for COVID-19 on Monday — had pulled each item for discussion and clarification during the meeting. He also told the Times later that, “I feel the Police Department gets a lot of funding already in our budget, and I don’t feel comfortable spending more.”

He also added: “This has been a part of my platform, including when I campaigned for office. Funding needs to match the values of the community.”

One member of the audience on Monday night appeared to agree with Ornales. Fue Xiong, an activist who for several months now has been scrutinizing the city budget and also line items on the regular agenda, spoke up against using money for traffic and DUI enforcement.

With regard to the new police motorcycles, Xiong said: “Merced needs to move away from having police officers conducting traffic stops. Studies have shown that traffic stops by police officers have disproportionally questioned, searched, cited, and arrested people of color, and Merced needs to move away from that. We need to develop an equitable approach to traffic enforcement, and that is to create a traffic agency with unarmed city employees whose duty is to conduct traffic stops, and not to detain, search, or arrest anyone.”

Xiong also took issue with the Mobile Incident Communication vehicle saying the unit would be used to support DUI checkpoints. Xiong said he favors a more progressive approach to DUI enforcement that should be educational and preventative and not be punitive.

“Giving away DUI tickets and taking away driving licenses doesn’t help anyone,” he told the City Council. “All it does is make it harder for people to pay bills, run errands, and drive to work. We are simply hurting the people in our community. The grant could be used for educational programs to avoid drunk driving, but instead is being used to punish people.”

There was another view in the audience; however, and it came from a gentleman who volunteers in the community with neighborhood cleanups and youth sports programs.

“I think all these things are needed, and I just ask for more of it,” said Jermaine “Coach” Paster. “When I get pulled over, 97 percent of the time it is because I was doing something wrong. And I think that needs to be understood. I’m an advocate for vehicles and more equipment for our law enforcement divisions because response time is important. It’s not until we are in trouble, and that response time is not effective, that we see how bad we need our law enforcement.”

He continued, “If you are doing the right thing, I tend to see that you don’t have to worry that much. … That’s really important for me to say because these are men and women, with family and friends, who put their life on the line everyday. And that’s important to recognize. And that we are all human, and we make mistakes, and I see that across the board. Whether we are an auto mechanic, law enforcement officer, or a football coach.”

Councilman Kevin Blake, who works as a Sheriff’s deputy, spoke up about the bomb robot equipment, saying, “We are lucky to have the city’s Bomb Squad in this region. The bar is very high when it comes to certifications, and we have some really good people in that unit.”

MPD Captain Joe Weiss was on hand for clarifications on the bomb robot purchase. He said the unit has a lifespan of about 15 years. They will have training exercises with it twice a month, and they expect the robot to perform anywhere from 12 to 20 missions a year. The bomb robot currently in use was originally purchased in March of 2005 and has been repaired several times to stay in operation to meet the needs of community.

Finally, public speaker Xiong also brought up something that was first mentioned by Councilman Ornales at the previous council meeting in mid-December.

Ornales had commented on the new exterior color and decal design of MPD patrol cars recently released in a flashy promotional video on social media. He pointed out that one of the cars had a blue line across the frame, and that members of the community could potentially see that as a negative symbol.

While the patrol car was seen with a thick blue, racing-car stripe, Ornales was referring to the “Thin Blue Line” — a term that typically refers to the concept of the police as the line which keeps society from descending into violent chaos. The blue line symbol has also been commonly used as a stripe within the image of an American flag to support of law enforcement, but these flags have also come to signal opposition to the racial justice movement happening across the nation.

“I’m more concerned about the relationship between the Police Department and the community,” Ornales told the Times. “These types of symbols can get in the way of it. … Even the notion of a blue line means a division between the law enforcement and the community.”

On Monday night, Xiong repeated this concern: “I want to remind this council to be conscious of the message of white supremacy and the historic oppression of people of color …  Will the city ensure that the same mistakes will not be made with these proposed motorcycles, and will the city take measures to fix the recent changes to patrol cars?”

City Manager Stephanie Dietz responded, saying the intention of that particular design was to accent a “community outreach” patrol car and: “We did not intend for any of the colorings or markings to be offensive in any way.”

Dietz said she talked to Police Chief Tom Cavallero about the feedback from Councilman Ornales, and they both agreed to “retool the striping” of the community-oriented vehicle to support the three stated wellness initiatives of the Merced Police Department, including Breast Cancer Awareness, Autism Awareness and Men’s Health Awareness.

Ornales told the Times, he was pleased with the awareness and pivot by the MPD, and that he did not think the original marking and negative connotation was intentional.

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