Merced asked state to investigate its police. But a key city leader has changed his mind

The city of Merced recently sent a letter to California’s attorney general, asking the state’s top cop to investigate its own police department amid questions by some City Council members about how officers conduct business.

But a council member who voted in support of that letter to the attorney general now says he regrets his decision. It’s unclear whether his change of heart will impact that review.

Newly-elected Councilman Ronnie De Anda, who represents southwest Merced’s District 2, voted on Jan. 3 with three other members of the seven-seat City Council to request Attorney General Rob Bonta’s office to conduct a review of Merced Police Department’s patterns and practices.

The issue passed by a narrow 4-3 margin, with council members De Anda, Jesse Ornelas, Bertha Perez and Fue Xiong voting in support, while council members Shane Smith, Sarah Boyle and Mayor Matt Serratto opposed.

The letter, sent to Bonta by Merced City Manager Stephanie Dietz, said the request is made in the interest of transparency and bolstering trust between police and the community. It asks for an assessment of “policies, trainings, and practices to identify possible ways to achieve safe and respectful outcomes for members of our community and our sworn and non-sworn officers.”

“Additionally, the review should look beyond individual incidents and allegations to assess any systemic issues or department deficiencies,” the letter adds.

A few weeks after that vote, however, De Anda on Jan. 17 told the council he’d switched gears. He now wants to put the brakes on the AG’s review of Merced police. He has requested city staff to put the item on the Feb. 21 council agenda for another vote.

During a meeting with The Fresno Bee, De Anda acknowledged his vote landed him in hot water with a few of his strongest supporters, some of whom work in law enforcement. A retired mailman, De Anda was endorsed by the Merced Police Officers Association during the Nov. 7 election, where he defeated incumbent Fernando Echevarria by getting 72.6% of the vote.

De Anda acknowledged that after he cast the vote in support of the AG letter, three members of the Merced Police Department met with him, asking why he supported the AG review.

“They just looked at me like, ‘why would you do this?’” De Anda said of the meeting. De Anda said he told the officers that he had made a mistake, and that he hadn’t thought the issue through before voting on it. “These guys have been really good with me,” De Anda said. “I didn’t really know what I was doing.”

The Fresno Bee reached out to Myles Richter, president of the Merced Police Officers Association, to talk about the letter to the AG and the meeting De Anda had with the officers. Richter could not be reached for comment as of Wednesday.

When asked why he voted on the letter in the first place, De Anda said he did so after Councilman Ornelas asked him for the support on the dais, saying “can you back me?”

De Anda said he then voted to support the item, without fully thinking it through. In hindsight, De Anda said he’s concerned the letter might negatively impact the department, whether that’s retaining officers or being able to establish and maintain wages that are competitive with nearby cities.

“I didn’t foresee those consequences,” he said.

Ronnie De Anda
Ronnie De Anda

Unringing the bell?

Meanwhile, because the city has already sent the letter to Bonta’s office, it’s not clear whether it’s too late to reverse course. Bonta’s office told The Fresno Bee in an email they’re “aware of the matter” and are reviewing the city of Merced’s request.

City of Merced spokesperson Jennifer Flachman confirmed the letter will be brought back for discussion on the Feb. 21 City Council agenda.

Councilman Ornelas, who spearheaded the letter to the AG, acknowledged asking De Anda on the dais whether he would support the item, and De Anda responded he would.

When asked whether he could point to any recent particular incident that would cause him to have concerns about the performance of the police department’s officers, Ornelas said some of those were issues he’d heard about third hand or during private conversations, and thus he couldn’t comment.

Still, Ornelas said he’s more concerned about ensuring a positive culture exists at the department. “We have to make sure our officers are being treated with dignity and respect from the top down,” Ornelas told The Bee.

Ornelas did say he was concerned about the 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.

Back in August, the Merced Sun-Star filed a public information request seeking documents from the city about that investigation. Still, city officials have not commented on the investigation, saying the internal matter is still pending.

On the other side of the issue, Mayor Serratto voted against sending a letter to the Attorney General’s Office.

A veteran prosecutor who serves as Merced County’s chief deputy district attorney, Serratto told The Bee that while the police department, like any organization, may have personnel issues that need to be dealt with, he does not feel an AG investigation is warranted in Merced.

Serratto said even though the city sent a letter to the AG for an investigation, that doesn’t mean one will happen.

“My sense is the AG is focused on big, serious systemic civil rights issues in law enforcement agencies,” Serratto said. “They are still going to follow their normal standards and protocols. Just because we asked them doesn’t mean they are going to do it.”

Serratto said while he supports holding members of law enforcement accountable, he doesn’t want to unnecessarily put police under a microscope to the point they feel uncomfortable working for the city. “At the end of the day, what (the police) are doing is providing a service to the community,” he said.

Ornelas wasn’t surprised that De Anda was approached by law enforcement after the Jan. 3 vote on the letter to the AG. “I think this is an example of the grasp law enforcement has on our community,” Ornelas said. “To me, it’s like showing guilt they are afraid of what’s going to be uncovered.”

Mayor Serratto said he’s unsure whether bringing the issue back to City Council will change anything, as the letter to the AG has already been sent.

Serratto also said he was surprised by De Anda’s support of the letter, saying he wondered whether his fellow council member understood the implications behind the vote. “I don’t know (whether) he can unring the bell, that’s the problem.” Serratto said.

Merced City Councilmember Jesse Ornelas speaks to youth and community members outside the Merced Civic Center during the Fund Our Futures rally in Merced, Calif., on Monday, Oct. 18, 2021.
Merced City Councilmember Jesse Ornelas speaks to youth and community members outside the Merced Civic Center during the Fund Our Futures rally in Merced, Calif., on Monday, Oct. 18, 2021.

Recent history of attorney general reviews

If the Attorney General’s Office proceeds with the investigation of Merced police, it would be the first for the city.

There have been other recent reviews of law enforcement agencies conducted by the Attorney General’s Office.

In the most well-known recent case, the Attorney General’s Office under Xavier Beccerra conducted a review of the Sacramento Police Department following the 2018 fatal shooting of Stephon Clark. Clark’s death was followed by weeks of community protest and widespread calls for police reform.

Becerra urged Sacramento police to adopt sweeping changes to its use of force policies and training, though the officers who killed Clark were never criminally charged.

In another case, the Attorney General’s Office conducted a review of the Vallejo Police Department after police shot and killed a 22-year-old unarmed man. At the time Becerra launched the review, Vallejo police had shot and killed at least 21 people since 2005, KQED reported. One police officer shot and killed three people within five months in 2012, according to the Mercury News.

The review of Vallejo police resulted in an agreement to collaborate on a comprehensive policing plan that emphasized improvements in use-of-force procedures, anti-bias policing, and accountability by focusing on training, policy, and transparency, according to the Attorney General’s Office.

Other departments who have been subject to recent investigations, reviews or actions by the Attorney General’s Office include San Francisco Police, Santa Clara Sheriff’s Office, Torrance Police Department, Bakersfield Police, Los Angeles Sheriff’s Office, Kern County Sheriff’s Office and Stockton Unified School District police.

Merced Mayor Matthew Serratto
Merced Mayor Matthew Serratto

Issues on the table

The letter to the Attorney General’s Office comes at a time of transition for the Merced Police Department.

The agency is currently without a permanent police chief, following the retirement of Chief Tom Cavallero in December. The city has retained Bob Murray & Associates to conduct a national search for the next chief.

The public outreach process for the job is expected to begin this month, with recruitment activity to follow.

In addition, Merced’s police force currently has 91 sworn officers, though it’s budgeted for 98. That’s to police a community of over 86,000 people.

There’s also Measure C, a public safety half-cent sales tax that provides $7 million annually, supporting 30 police and fire jobs in Merced. The measure is scheduled to sunset in 2026, and last year it failed to get enough council votes to be placed on the November ballot. Whether voters will get a chance to weigh in on that stream of revenue will largely depend on the latest City Council.

Given those issues facing Merced police, Mayor Serratto said rather than sending a letter to the AG, the city’s priority should be hiring good leadership and more officers. ”Anything that kind of dissuades people from joining is going to be a detriment to the city,” Serratto said.

“It’s certainly a concern. I hope I am wrong. I think there is a danger that we scare away some good candidates if they perceive the council is antagonistic towards them.”

Regardless of what happens at the Feb. 21 meeting, Ornelas said the AG investigation should continue its investigation into Merced police. He said more oversight is ultimately a good thing that will result in a better department.

“If (the police) have done nothing wrong, they have nothing to worry about,” Ornelas said.