Merced County seeking state funding to target crime, gangs

The Merced County District Attorney’s Office is working with Assemblyman Adam Gray, D-Merced, to seek $4.5 million in state funding for a program to combat gang violence in Merced County.
The program, called Merced Violence Interruption/Prevention Emergency Response, or VIPER, would be implemented in three phases, with information from the many local law enforcement agencies gathered in one “fusion center.”
“The county’s criminal justice community is proposing a new and completely different approach compared to traditional reactive policing strategies,” Gray wrote in a March letter to an Assembly budget committee.
The proposal is a collaborative response from Gray, the District Attorney’s Office and the state Bureau of Investigation to combat the gang violence and record-high slaying rates over the past few years.
“This is a state issue because we’re the No. 1 county in homicides,” said District Attorney Larry Morse. “So much of the narco trafficking goes through our borders to other parts of the state and country.”
Morse said VIPER would be a pilot program to serve as a model for other communities.
Last month, Sheriff Vern Warnke and District Attorney Larry Morse II joined forces while appealing to the county Board of Supervisors for funding for deputies, specifically for a gang task force, as the county deals with its highest-ever homicide rate. The board returned a week later with numbers on added law enforcement positions, but the sheriff and district attorney said those positions would reinstate previously cut ones and that higher pay would be needed to retain experienced deputies.
Now, supervisors are pledging to match VIPER funding by at least 10 percent. Hub Walsh, District 2 supervisor and the board chairman, sent a letter to Gray on behalf of the board expressing support for the VIPER program.
“Public safety is the foremost priority of the Board of Supervisors and maintains the greatest share of county ... funding,” the letter said. “However, a state-high homicide rate in 2014 is very troubling. With 31 total homicides in 2015, this rate is becoming an unfortunate trend and needs to be addressed.”
The three phases of the VIPER program would roll out over three years to fund extra law enforcement information analyst positions, training, software and counselors in the last phase.
Essentially, the program would beef up the county’s gang task force, said Pat Lunney, chief of investigations for the District Attorney’s Office. The added personnel would join current task force members.
As for the database of information, Lunney said, VIPER would help the county take advantage of information it has but is unable to utilize.
“With the right information and tactics, the criminal justice community can arrest, prosecute and remove a large enough portion of those committing violent acts to reduce the number of homicides in Merced County,” Gray said in the letter.
In the first phase of the program, the information management unit would be established, consisting of four analysts, training, tech hardware, software and licenses, and housing. The four analysts would be paid $110,000 each.
The second phase would consist of developing cases and prosecuting them, and the third phase would incorporate community involvement by hiring community-based counselors.
Gray said he’s working with the committee to look at the routes to fund the program.
If the program is not funded, Morse said, the county won’t be able to move forward in tackling the issue.
“If the program isn’t funded, we’re where we are right now,” he said. “A greater share of the burden will fall back onto the county.”
Gray said it will take the support of all levels of governments: “The city, county, state – we’ve all got to work together.”

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