In a stunning new development that puts a spotlight on the city’s public safety apparatus, the Merced City Council has directed city staff to send a letter to California’s Office of the Attorney General asking for a probe into the Merced Police Department’s “patterns and practices, systemic issues, and internal policies that impact staff and the community.”
The move, initiated by Councilman Jesse Ornelas, was approved in a split 4-3 vote during a Tuesday night meeting at City Hall, with Mayor Matthew Serratto, and Council members Sarah Boyle and Shane Smith voting NO.
The YES votes included newly elected Council members, Fue Xiong, who was vocal about creating change within the Police Department during his campaign, and Ronnie De Anda, who kept silent during the meeting — the only leader to do so — and did not comment on why he voted to approve the letter.
Their decision comes at a time when the city is actively recruiting a new police chief to lead the department, when questions have been raised about the future of Measure C public safety funding, when police officer staffing levels and retention remains a concern, when special enforcement team members are being eyed for reassignment back into regular patrols, and when nearby cities such as Los Banos are actually finding ways to increase public safety salaries.
Councilman Ornelas, a local Brown Beret member who has led “anti-police brutality” protests, was not-surprisingly the most vocal supporter for his own idea to send the A.G. a letter.
“This isn’t an attack on any officer per se,” he told his colleagues. “I come into this in a righteous way … I don’t come into this in a witch hunt — to identify any individuals of any wrongdoing at all. I’ve prayed about this issue tremendously. I’ve had conversations with the staff of the Attorney General’s office, including the Attorney General. … I see this as an opportunity to heal the culture and moral of our police department. I’m bringing this forward for the new and the young officers who have picked the city of Merced as a place to be a servant when they can pick anywhere in California to be involved in law enforcement.”
However, Mayor Serratto had a different take on the matter. In his day job as a Merced County prosecutor, Serratto said it’s been his experience that such studies by the Attorney General’s Office are not normally initiated by cities, but by the agency itself, notably out of its civil rights wing.
“They are generally looking at systematic civil rights issues at police departments,” the mayor said. “A prospective police chief is going to look at that and the alarm bells are going to go off like crazy. … The perception will be that [the new police chief] will be coming into something they can’t control, and the perception will be this will impact recruitment.”
Interestingly, no specific examples of wrongdoing originating from within the Merced Police Department that might prompt such an A.G. investigation were revealed during Tuesday night’s discussion. There were only vague references.
Ornelas described, “Whistleblowers who have leaned into the discomfort of putting their career on the line,” and that there were “a lot of instances and allegations of leadership not protecting officers.”
“I don’t hear as much as I used to about blatant racism by the Police Department or violent acts on citizens, I don’t hear that as much as we used to years ago. But what I mostly hear about is how folks in leadership positions in the Police Department are treating community members, and treating its officers.”
Later, the councilman suggested that problems inside the department are “not a secret … that there has already been news articles … I think it got shared 80,000 times.”
But Ornelas wasn’t clear on what he was talking about. He might be referring to a report that was posted online last summer through a Davis news website called DavisVanguard.org that details alleged whistleblower allegations and complaints against an MPD lieutenant who is reportedly under investigation. A Facebook page called Merced Under Construction has also posted audio that a narrator on the site says involves whistleblower testimony of harassment within the department, among other wrongdoings.
It’s also not clear if this reported personnel matter or internal investigation has been resolved, of if any disciplinary action has taken place.
There have been sporadic complaints about the Merced Police Department spoken during the Council’s public comment period over the past year. On Tuesday night, five resident spoke up in support of Ornelas’s request to send the A.G. a letter. One said, “So many things have happened.”
Pastor Ronald Dunham said, “What we want in Merced is transparency and accountability for our officers, and sometimes you need a new look. We need to look outside ourselves.”
Newly elected Councilman Shane Smith was the first leader to chime in on the discussion with words of caution. He said he wasn’t against an outside study into the Police Department, but he questioned the timing. “Would it be better to bring this request back after we hired our chief so that it’s something the new police chief can be apart of, as opposed to having it on the table, and having an Attorney General investigation happening while we are trying to recruit a police chief, and potentially making it more difficult or changing the applicant pool?”
Ornales shot back: “I think it would be good for any potential police chief to see that we are centering the needs of young officers proactively instead of waiting for him or her to come fix a problem that they didn’t participate in.”
Soon Councilwoman Bertha Perez was jumping into the discussion. “Anybody who would vote NO on this is against fixing anything we have wrong in the city. It’s not costing us anything. It’s actually making us safer. And who doesn’t want extra help for free. It’s like a no brainer.”
And then Ornelas turned up the heat, saying: “I will add … In a couple years, we are going to be expected to support Measure C. For myself, for me to even start to spark any type of thought into supporting Measure C … like this [the A.G. study] would be a major duck that would have to be in a row to make sure that our Police Department is in a good way … Ready to work right. I would encourage others on the dais to have the same frame of mind. We are asking residents — our working class people who dedicate years of tax dollars, years of their hard earned time and money — into supporting a measure. I feel like we need to do our due diligence as leaders to make sure our Police Department is in a good way.”
To this, Smith replied: “I might disagree that this should be linked to Measure C. There is strong support for fully funding our police and fire. And if we are talking about a study that is going to take two years, I don’t know if we can wait that long to start getting money back so we can start hiring officers at a competitive salary so we don’t have to do things like relocating people from the DART Team into patrol.”
Smith pointed out: “I don’t have enough information on what we would be asking the A.G., and what he is going to do. I don’t know how intrusive it will be. I don’t know how long it will take.”
Smith added that he would feel more comfortable if he could actually could read the letter that was going to be sent, and that the action had “police department buy-in,” perhaps with the involvement of the interim chief. He asked for the item to come back to Council in 30 days.”
That’s when Xiong spoke up, saying it wasn’t necessary “to ask a body that you are reviewing whether or not they want an investigation to happen. It should be on the community and it should be on the Council.”
Smith said he disagreed.
“If we find that we are deciding that the Police Department needs to be investigated, and we don’t get department buy-in, than we are actually launching, by definition would be, an adversarial investigation, which I heard [prior from Ornelas] is not the intent. This could be a positive thing if done correctly. There’s a way we can do this in a way that is constructive.”