The Merced City Council on Tuesday night voted down a motion to reconsider their controversial Jan. 3 decision to send a letter to the state Attorney General’s Office asking for an outside review of the city’s Police Department’s “patterns and practices.”
The letter with the request has already been sent, and a friendly response from the AG’s Office has been received by the city, though there’s no indication so far that a determination has been made to go through with an investigation.
Nevertheless, City Councilman Ronnie De Anda made a request for his fellow council members to reconsider sending the letter to the AG. He said he did not understand the consequences of the Jan. 3 decision which was approved on a 4-3 vote, with at least two council members asking for more time to review the issue.
De Anda said he regretted his vote soon after the meeting, and he worried about what effect it would have on the Police Department with regard to officer retention, morale and the current recruitment of a new police chief.
The controversy comes at a time when the department is struggling to fill vacant positions and the Disruptive Area Response Team (DART) has been temporarily disbanded due to the staffing issues. Also, a dedicated police officer for the downtown area has been reassigned to general patrol.
On Tuesday night, however, two leaders who originally voted against sending a letter to the AG — Mayor Matt Serratto and Councilwoman Sarah Boyle — decided not to vote in favor of a reconsideration. The final tally was 5-2, with Councilmen De Anda and Shane Smith as the only ones who voted YES.
“What’s done is done,” Mayor Serratto said before the decision. “I don’t see any sense in reconsidering it. If we do reconsider it, and we send something else, in a lot of ways, it just makes it worse. It’s not going to help.”
But Serratto did call the request for an AG probe “a mistake.”
“I think a patterns and practices investigation tends to be focused on different issues that kinda sends the wrong message in a lot of ways. We are certainly not without our issues, but again, you look at what was mentioned earlier that we have a homicide clearance rate close 90 percent the last two years, and a DART Team that has been disbanded, and we hope that it comes back soon, and all the good people of all walks of life that came out in support of all the good community work [the team] does. During the protests, when a lot of the cities were experiencing rioting and there was a lot of property damage, when our protests happened, there were no arrests. No property damage. Our Police Department was a big part of that. The way they handled it. So there is a lot of really good here, and there’s a lot of good because of the trust in the community and the good service they provide. Certainly bad things are going to happen. I think with 80,000-plus citizens, and the police interactions within a year, not all of them are going to go well.”
For her part, Councilwoman Boyle called the issue “a learning experience.”
“If we [council members] don’t understand what is presented to us, we need to ask the questions. In regards to the confusion, that is one of the reasons why I voted no on it. I wanted to see that letter before it got sent out. There were certain steps that I wanted before I voted yes on this. …
“I hope that this doesn’t scare off any potential police chiefs that are going to apply for the position. But you know, we kinda have to lie in the bed that we made, and take it from there.”
Councilman De Anda also repeated his concerns on Tuesday night about a potential AG investigation.
“Our troops are being deleted out there,” he said. “And what scares the hell out of me is the fact that there are times when they have only eight police officers on patrol to cover a city of over 80,000 people. Can you believe that? That’s enough to scare anybody. It’s not right.”
De Anda said the council should have waited to have a police chief in place before requesting a probe from the AG.
In contrast, Councilman Jesse Ornelas — who first brought the idea of contacting the AG to the Council’s attention — described himself as “perhaps the only councilman in the Merced’s history to be a victim of police brutality inside the city during the 1990s.”
“This was never intended to be a ‘F— the police’ agenda item,” he said. “It was to get help from the Attorney General because we have an incident that happened in Memphis where somebody died. And we’ve had those here too, but luckily they didn’t die. And that’s recent history. For me, the reason given [not to request an AG probe] is we are scaring officers away. That’s not a good enough reason to not be looked into. Community members and the City Council deserve to know how the police officers are responding to the incidences that are happening.”
Ornelas did not provide specific details (names, dates, locations) in which local police wrongdoings have occurred, but he did point to what’s been said by community members who have spoken out against police actions at council meetings.
On Tuesday night, five members of the public urged the City Council to accept and move forward with an investigation by the Attorney General. They said bad cops were among the sworn officers on the local police force, and said action needs to be taken by leadership.
Kathy and Ronald Denham spoke about an incident involving their son who they say was pursued by a police officer who had drawn his gun.
One frequent speaker, Victoria Espinoza, asked the council: “What about the ones you have had to fire in the last 60 days? What about the other one who might still be on administrative leave for excessive force?”
A voicemail was also presented from a woman who would not identify herself “out of fear of any kind of local retaliation.”
Near the end of the discussion, Mayor Serratto did warn his fellow colleagues on the council about delving into city staff personnel issues.
“The perception of an antagonistic council that is going to get into police personnel issues — and according to the City Charter, we are not to get involved with personnel issues — but the perception of a council that does, that is a danger. Some people may not want to hear that. Obviously we want to promote police accountability, but if we do [get into personnel issues], we are going to send a warning to good officers, and we are going to send a warning to good police chief candidates that this isn’t a place they want to work. … If we are going to advance that perception it’s going to hurt the community.”
Serratto added that ultimately the City Council, the Police Department and the community will be the ones to “fix whatever problems we have.”
Said Serratto, “The AG is not going to come in and solve a bunch a problems for us. At the end of the day, it’s going to take this community, our people, this Council, everybody working together, to get the best possible police department we can.”