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Merced searches for new police chief to lead department amid challenges

Joe Moore

MERCED, Calif. — The city of Merced is searching now for both a new police chief and a new city manager as the growing community faces potential funding limitations and a divided city council.

The department of 98 sworn officers has been without a permanent leader since December, when Chief Thomas Cavarello retired. A retired police captain from Modesto was tapped Tuesday to serve as interim chief.

Craig Gundlach is expected to fill the interim role for about six months while a search is underway for a new chief, Merced City Manager Stephanie Dietz said. Dietz herself announced last week she will leave her role at the end of her three-year contract in November, meaning the new chief will report to a city manager who has yet to be determined.

The search for a chief comes as the department has had to cut programs due to lack of staffing, trouble recruiting new officers and public concern about its stability. Recently, a divided city council criticized the department's operations and sent a letter to the California Attorney General’s Office asking for an investigation. That followed a vote last year that narrowly blocked a measure that would have allowed city voters to decide whether to extend a sales tax that generates millions each year for public safety, including the department.

Mayor Matthew Serratto, who in addition to his City Council role serves as Merced’s chief deputy district attorney, worries the council’s request for an investigation sends the wrong message as the city is recruiting its next chief.

“Obviously, we want to promote police accountability,” he said at a Feb. 21 council meeting. But, by sending the request to the Attorney General’s Office, “we're going to send a warning to good officers, we're going to send a warning to good police chief candidates that this isn't a place they want to work. … We have to be careful if we're going to advance that perception because it could hurt the community.”

The Attorney General’s Office has confirmed it received Merced’s request but has not indicated how it will respond.

Serratto said it's ultimately up to the Merced community to unite and build a better police department.

“The AG is not going to come in and solve a bunch of problems for us,” Serratto said. “At the end of the day, this community, it's our people, this council, and everybody working together to get the best possible department so we can serve the community in the best way.”

Budget, staffing concerns

City leaders hope a permanent chief will bring the department much-needed stability. Gundlach will be the force’s fourth leader since Chief Norm Andrade retired just over five years ago.

Merced hired the Roseville-based recruitment firm Bob Murray & Associates to conduct the national search at a cost that could reach nearly $95,000 The same firm will conduct the search for the next city manager.

Serratto said the timing of Dietz’s departure could make the search for the next chief more difficult.

“Not knowing who your boss is going to be is something that could certainly create a challenge and could complicate the search,” he said.

The future of the department’s funding also remains uncertain since the Measure C sales-tax funding for public safety sunsets in 2026.

Merced voters passed the tax in 2006 to boost funding for the city’s police, fire and public works departments. Last year, a renewal plan failed to receive the required City Council support to make it onto the November ballot. Without the half-cent tax, city officials estimate Merced could face a $7 million annual budget shortfall, and lose stable funding for about 30 police and fire positions. A citizens committee led by former Mayor Mike Murphy is working to gather the signatures needed to put the extension measure before voters in early 2024.

Staffing shortages already plague the department. In early January, the acting chief disbanded the department’s Disruptive Area Response Team, which supplemented patrol officers to address quality-of-life issues such as illegal gambling, blight, human trafficking, providing services for the unhoused and connecting with members of the community.

The 98 officers employed by Merced is a number that has moved little since 2010, even as the population has grown from about 79,000 to nearly 90,000. Five of those officers are currently on leave, city officials said.

During town hall meetings in January and February, residents all expressed concern about the disbanding of DART, staffing shortages, the letter to the Attorney General’s Office, and the lack of a permanent chief.

Serratto reassured residents that despite its challenges, the department managed to keep homicides down to six in city limits in 2022 and made arrests in all of them. The year before that, there were 13 homicides in the city, and Merced police solved 11, Serratto said, calling it “extraordinary.”

“Hopefully going forward, a lesson for anybody who is going to commit an act of extreme violence in Merced, there’s a high, high likelihood you’re going to get caught,” Serratto said. “So we’re going to work on that end, but also going to work on the prevention and intervention end as well, and hopefully those numbers come down and down and down, and our city gets safer and safer.”

Brianna Vaccari is an accountability and watchdog reporter for the Central Valley Journalism Collaborative, a nonprofit newsroom launched in 2021 by the James B. McClatchy Foundation.