One of the biggest stories coming from the Merced City Council so far this year was a split vote on Jan. 3 that approved sending 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 issue passed by a slight 4-3 margin, with council members Jesse Ornelas (who spearheaded the letter idea), Bertha Perez, Fue Xiong and Ronnie De Anda voting in support, while council members Shane Smith, Sarah Boyle and Mayor Matt Serratto voted NO.
However, at the next council meeting a couple weeks later on Jan. 17, Councilman De Anda made a request to put the city’s desire for an AG investigation back up for a vote. He said he did not understand the consequences the move would have on the Police Department with regard to officer retention, morale and the current recruitment of a new police chief — not to mention if a probe by the state’s top lawyer and law enforcement official was indeed necessary. He said he wanted to rectify his vote.
De Anda might have a chance to switch gears on Tuesday night, June 21, when the City Council meets again and the item in question is on the agenda.
“It’s not the proper time,” De Anda told the Times. “If you really want to do that [send the AG a letter], then let’s wait for a new chief to get in there. … I’m more convinced now that we need to keep the officers that we do have, all while we recruit for more that are needed.”
De Anda said he met with supporters, including law enforcement officials, about their opinions on the impact of the letter sent to the AG, about details of what a patterns and practices investigation entails, as well as, concerns over officer retention.
“What I’m hearing is very concerning,” De Anda said. “The number of police officers we have on the streets at any given time is not enough. Police officers are looking for transfers. Two people have left the department already.”
De Anda also said he was not pressured by law enforcement officials to change his vote.
Nevertheless, Councilman Ornelas says his colleague’s reasoning is suspect, and besides, he points out, the letter has already been sent and answered.
“It’s a little hilarious to me,” Ornelas told the Times. “After Ronnie votes in favor of it, then law enforcement contacts him, and pressures him to put it back on the ballot so he can change his mind. Like, do they really think that’s going to help? I just find it funny that they think it’s going to help their case. Actually, it looks like they have something to hide.”
He added, “[De Anda] has the opportunity, just like the rest of us on the Council, to review the agenda packet. So we get it, and read it, and we base our decisions on the information that is given to us, and also on our own experience. If he can’t figure out his stance on something by the time City Council meetings come around, then I don’t know.”
Councilman Shane Smith, however, has concerns about this particular decision-making process.
“I voted against sending the letter. I don’t think it’s the right move for a number of reasons. I don’t think Councilman Ornelas sufficiently justified the need to have a civil rights review of the Police Department. I have real concerns that the item was not properly noticed under the Brown Act. I don’t think the public had proper notice of what was actually going to be discussed. The item only said to give staff direction to send a letter to the attorney general to request a patterns and practices study. The words Police Department were not in there. ‘Patterns and practices study’ is a term of art. I don’t think Merced residents understand what that means. …
“This item was on the agenda for action without an actual letter, without, in my view, properly noticing the discussion topic for the public,” Smith continued. “I have talked to people who were confused, who would have been there to make public comment. And to another point, we also had a member of the City Council who was confused with what was being discussed. And Mr. De Anda has now said that publicly. I give him credit for acknowledging that.
“It’s not a great way to make policy in a general manner, but the gravity of this, I think, is lost on people.
This is a serious, serious thing, for a City Council to ask an outside agency to investigate without, I think, proper grounds for doing so. And at the same meeting we talked about the contours of the city manager’s search for a new police chief. I don’t know there is proper consideration for how sending this letter is going to impact the quality of the talent pool the City Manager will get to hire a police chief. I would prefer to put the city in a position to hire the best police chief that we can and let that person do his or her job. … Without sufficient justification for it, it’s going to be far more damaging than it is going to be helpful.”
Smith said he hopes the Council on Tuesday can at least send a message that the original letter was improvidently considered and shouldn’t have been sent.
“I think it will send a message to our men and women in uniform, and to people who are thinking about applying to be police chief of Merced, that the council is a least willing to consider decisions of this magnitude with more information and time, and come to a better conclusion.”
Ornelas says he first talked with Attorney General Rob Bonta over the summer during a visit to Merced that included meeting with a small group of community members. Councilwoman Bertha Perez was also present. Ornelas says some residents brought up issues concerning the Merced Police Department. Since that meeting, Ornelas says he’s become more concerned about ensuring a positive culture exists at the department.
In an interview with the Fresno Bee, Ornelas cited a report by an online publication called The Davis Vanguard about an alleged internal investigation into one of the department’s lieutenants. The Davis Vanguard report, which is attributed to anonymous sources and “whistleblower” complaints, says the focus of the investigation is alleged racial and sexual harassment.
Councilwoman Perez says Merced shouldn’t fear an AG investigation. It’s a good thing, she says.
“I think egos are hurt,” she told the Times. “Like, ‘How dare you come look at me with a microscope?’ But that’s not what’s going on. I’m not saying there’s anything to correct. I’m saying if there is something to correct — you know — when your parents corrected you as a child, it didn’t feel good, but it made you better. A correction is only a form of love. I invite it.”
“Anyways,” she adds regarding the letter that was sent. “You can’t unring the bell.”
Councilman Ornelas agrees and says he’s confident an outside investigation will take place.
Mayor Matthew Serratto confirmed the city has received a letter back from the AG which stated the state office appreciates the city taking a proactive approach. However, the mayor said the letter didn’t exactly mention an investigation was actually going to take place. The Mayor also said he understands and accepts De Anda’s reason to revisit the issue, but he’s unsure what result, if any, a new vote on Tuesday (perhaps to rescind the original letter from the city) would have.
“It’s unclear,” he told the Times. “At the end of the day, the Attorney General, and the state agency, is independent of us. They don’t answer to us, and they are free to investigate us if they feel it’s appropriate.”
The mayor added, “These types of investigations are typically reserved for major civil rights violations. Which is fine if that’s what’s necessary, but it comes at a cost. When you have a council that is perceived as antagonistic, and at the same time, you are trying to recruit a police chief, it’s going to be a problem, and we are going to have to figure that out.”