Merced’s new interim police chief, Craig Gundlach, only expects to be here somewhere between four and six months but his goal is to leave the Merced Police Department in even better shape when his stint is over.
Gundlach, 53, has 31 years of law enforcement experience and retired in December 2019 as a captain with the Modesto Police Department’s Investigations Division. He started here March 6 as the city was experiencing its second flood emergency and hit the ground running. He says there was a lot to do in a short period of time with the threat of flooding.
“I haven’t spent much personal time here but am impressed with the downtown and other parts of Merced. It has welcoming folks, pleasing parks and is very similar to Modesto. The issues here are similar to those in Modesto,” Gundlach says. “It’s a wonderful city and I have thoroughly enjoyed being with the department.”
The interim chief says he is reviewing systems and policies in place within the department. He hopes to bring a fresh perspective here, and is impressed with what he has seen so far.
“I hope to bring new ideas but am very cognizant about not wanting to implement things that the new chief wouldn’t want. I am here for four to six months. My commitment is that this community has my absolute dedication to lead this agency to the best of my abilities,” Gundlach says.
One of the Merced Police Department’s ongoing struggles is to hire more officers and other non-sworn personnel. The department is authorized 98 sworn officers but now has 89 on the force.
“Merced is a wonderful place; it has a lot to offer. One of the main attractions is the people who live here. It’s an active city and there is lots of work to do,” Gundlach says.
So far he has observed that excellent work is being conducted. Officers quickly made arrests in a recent string of local armed robberies with “some really good, decent police work.” He doesn’t want people to get the wrong impression — its personnel are working to close the gaps they see.
Gundlach stresses as part of the community, police officers need to make connections with residents. This effort by policemen and community service officers is a day-to-day, incident-by-incident thing.
“It’s the responding officers, who in calls for service, build trust in the moment. This is built and sustained. Building trust starts at the ground level,” Gundlach says. “This could be our finest hour.”
Officer safety is a main priority. He says police officers are important and their safety matters. Learning how to stay safe is paramount.
He says the department needs to do what it can for the mental and physical well-being of its officers, emergency service workers, dispatchers and first responders
Other challenges that Gundlach sees are blight and Merced’s unhoused population. He notes there is so much more work needed to decrease homelessness here and elsewhere.
He values partnerships and collaboration with the county’s Behavioral Health Services and social service agencies. This is the key to making long-term gains.
There have been 13 traffic fatalities this year and a large number of them were pedestrians. Outreach is under way with the homeless and urging them to keep an eye on one another. The department’s traffic unit is urging motorists to be especially careful at night when visibility is impaired.
“My job is to ensure that policies and ethics are kept at professional standards. Police have a higher expectation for ethical conduct from the public than almost any other profession you can think of,” Gundlach says.
The interim chief and his wife Beth have four grown children from 22 to 29 years of age. He started in law enforcement as an Explorer scout and became a reserve police officer at age 19. He worked for a time as an officer at California State University, Stanislaus in Turlock and also worked for a year as an investigator with the Stanislaus County District Attorney’s Office.
Gundlach is a graduate of the FBI National Academy in Quantico, Virginia. In addition, he holds a bachelor of science degree in occupational studies from CSU, Long Beach.
Gundlach replaces retiring Police Chief Tom Cavallero in the key leadership role.
Merced City Manager Stephanie Dietz said as interim chief, Gundlach will lead the department during the city’s nationwide search for its next chief.
“Chief Gundlach has a solid background in police operations, and I look forward to his leadership,” Dietz said. “I would also like to thank Acting Chief Joe Weiss for his steadfast leadership during the last several weeks leading up to the arrival of Chief Gundlach.”