Merced County Times Newspaper
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Merced City Leaders Facing Growing Calls For Changes In Police Department Policies, Tactics, Funding

Recent protests, vigils remain peaceful, prompt lively town halls

 

‘We really need to work on building trust with the Police Department …
As long as I am here I will be making a concerted effort to bring the community in.’

– Merced Police Chief Tom Cavallero

Merced Chief of Police Tom Cavallero holds hands and kneels with a fellow Mercedian during a candlelight vigil for George Floyd.

By JOHN MILLER
& JONATHAN WHITAKER

A week of local demonstrations came full circle this week as protesters and social activists met with Merced leaders — both online and in person — to seek understanding and discuss possible reforms to improve relations between the Police Department and all residents. 

The events were in direct response to the death of George Floyd, a 46-year-old African-American man who gave his last breath after a white Minneapolis police officer put a knee to his neck for nearly 9 minutes. 

The officer, Derek Chauvin, faces a second degree murder charge in the case, and criminal charges have been filed against three other officers who also took part in the tragedy. However, Floyd’s death in police custody sparked nationwide outrage and violent protests that so far has led to more than a dozen deaths (including law enforcement officers), thousands of people injured, widespread destruction of public buildings, street vandalism and the looting of small businesses and department stores.  

Fortunately, the marches and gatherings in Merced have been well-attended peaceful events, with participants calling out the national mantras “I Can’t Breathe, “Black Lives Matter” and “Defund The Police.”

On Tuesday night, the Merced NAACP hosted a virtual town hall meeting broadcast online with the theme “Policing in Merced: A New Approach.” In attendance were Mayor Mike Murphy, Police Chief Tom Cavallero, District Attorney Kimberly Helms Lewis and State Senator Anna Caballero.

From the start, NAACP chapter President Allen Brooks listed a number of demands for change in policies and procedures, including: 

1) a ban on the use of knee holds and chokeholds as an acceptable practice for police officers;

2) adherence to “use of force continuums” that provide guidelines for how much force may be used against a resisting subject in a given situation;

3) an open records act to ensure police misconduct is open and visible to the public; 

4) a citizens review board with subpoena power that will allow for investigations; 

5) and funding for those neighborhoods and communities that have been affected by the war on drugs. 

“All lives don’t matter until black lives matter,” said Mayor Murphy after being asked what does the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement mean to him as a key player in the community. 

Through the course of the town hall, residents who participated expressed the desire to hear all the elected leaders say the words “black lives matter,” and when asked about that, the leaders repeated the statement without hesitation. D.A. Lewis said she feels like the words have become a prayer.

Chief Cavallero said, “We really need to work on building trust with the Police Department … As long as I am here I will be making a concerted effort to bring the community in.” 

The chief also clarified that the aforementioned knee holds and chokeholds are already not permitted by MPD policy, and departments across the state have ended the teaching of the carotid artery restraint.

The mayor promised the City Council will review police policies and procedures with community engagement, report back findings, and take action.

Lewis revealed she was bringing three new programs to the county, including: 1) an organization called Cure Violence that has shown to be effective in reducing violence between 30 to 70 percent in the communities where the techniques have been implemented; 2) an intervention program that targets individuals involved in gangs whether they are adults or young people, and give them alternatives for healthy living; and 3) a preventative program focused on the youth at an early age and follow them through high school. 

Brooks of the NAACP called the town hall a first step and said more forums would be coming soon, and the leaders agreed to participate.  

 

As a small envoy of communicators made their way between two groups during a street protest at Olive and R streets in Merced, two participants from the group of marchers attempted to join them at the last moment, only to have some of their fellow marchers attempt to physically retrieve them, causing the entire group to make their way out into the street and sparking a tense standoff that prompted the Merced Police Department to separate the groups.
Tension at R and Olive

Some community members who comment on social media platforms continue to chat about a BLM street protest that turned tense last week on a Wednesday night near the corner of R and Olive streets. 

Protesters involved said they were disturbed and even felt threatened by another group of residents who appeared to be protecting a locally owned Chevron gas station on the south side of the intersection. Some claim the Chevron group brought guns with them in their cars. In addition, one particular social media post claimed local police officers had warned the owner of the Chevron that Antifa (a shortened version of the word antifascists) forces would overtake the gas station to use it as a staging area, and that the owner needed to prepare accordingly, as “it was not going to be pretty.” The post ended by calling for “a bunch of bikers, gun owners, all the farmers with tractors and big trailers” to defend the gas station.

During the aforementioned town hall, Chief Cavallero vehemently denied that his officers contacted the local business owner before the protests, and praised his officers for protecting the protesters and helping to bring the night to a peaceful end. 

As the march came to an end, a Times reporter overheard protest organizers ask the group to disperse, of which some did, while others remained in the area citing a concern about being followed home. However, those present at the Chevron station made it clear that as a group their intention was not to make peaceful protesters feel uncomfortable, with several individuals saying: “We’re not here for violence, were here to protect our community that we live in.”

One person told the Times, “We’re here for something that has been here since 1975. We’re here to protect a family business.” Others noted that they understood “What happened to George Floyd was bad,” but they were concerned after witnessing posts on social media calling for people to riot, loot, bring gasoline, and to wear protective gear. The organizers of that night’s protest said they had no connection to the posts that threatened violence.

No arrests or injuries were reported in the events of that night. 

Candlelight Vigil

Following the tense street moment, a crowd of community members came together with city officials for a candlelight vigil at Courthouse Park last Friday night to mourn the tragic death of George Floyd.

Throughout the evening event, numerous speakers made their way to the steps of the old courthouse to express their anguish. Among the leaders present were Mayor Pro-Tem Matthew Serratto, and Merced County Supervisors Daron McDaniel and Lloyd Pareira.

Organizers asked everyone to kneel for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, the duration of the time that Officer Chauvin knelt on Floyd’s neck. As they all took a knee, some called out: “I can’t breathe.”

City Councilmember and Mayor Pro-Tem Matthew Serratto speaks with those attending a town hall type meeting in front of the Merced County Courthouse Museum on Sunday about the types of permitted force allowed by the City of Merced Police Department.
Looking For Answers

On the following Sunday, residents were invited back to the courthouse steps to take part in a town hall style meeting with Merced City Council members Matt Serratto, Fernando Echevarria and Anthony Martinez.

Serratto noted that prior to the threat of COVID-19, a series of programs had been set in motion that involved bringing community members, police officers, and local organizations together. He explained that while some programs (such as the community block parties that occurred in the Loughborough area) had been postponed in the wake of the virus, others have continued with modifications, such as discussions among the NAACP and the Merced Police Department to ensure that all Mercedians are treated fairly with regards to use of force.

Councilman Echevarria drew attention, and some accusations of inappropriate behavior, when he decided to ask someone to put him in a carotid artery hold to demonstrate in front of everybody the similarities between what law enforcement agencies in California had been using up until recently with other illegal and dangerous chokeholds.

Council member Fernando Echevarria exclaims ‘I can’t breathe’ after asking a resident at a public forum to place him in a carotid artery hold to show the similarities between a chokehold and what he said was a permitted maneuver — something Police Chief Tom Cavallero clarified later in the week as something that’s not being used or trained on by local police officers. During Council member Echevarria’s display, participants were heard calling the actions inappropriate and asking the city leader to instead use his time answering questions. Eventually, Echevarria left the meeting before it ended after saying out loud that some of those present were ‘pissing him off’ to the dismay and discontent of some in attendance.

Speaking about the release of police body camera footage from confrontations, council member Echevarria pointed out that he would be in favor of the release of footage within 72 hours, despite unions “getting in our way.” Meanwhile, Serratto voiced a more tapered stance, saying that oftentimes the release of body camera footage needs to be weighed against existing privacy laws and the need to ensure the integrity of the investigation and possible trial.

Council member Martinez posed a simple question: “For the money we’re spending, what are we getting, and are we any safer?” Met with applause, Martinez continued by saying that he felt funding for the city’s Measure Y cannabis tax should solely go to parks, recreation, and youth activities, while funds raised from Measure C should be earmarked solely for use among the Merced Police Department.

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