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Interview: Merced County sheriff says he’s grappling with a deputy shortage

Merced County Sheriff Vern Warnke addresses the media on October 5, 2022.
Merced County Sheriff's Office Facebook page
Merced County Sheriff Vern Warnke addresses the media on October 5, 2022.

The Merced County Sheriff’s Department is facing a severe shortage of deputies. Sheriff Vernon Warnke addressed the Merced County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday, asking for funds to help remedy what he is calling a dire situation.

Merced is the number one county in the state for homicides, but at this point, Warnke says most units, such as gang enforcement, have been put on hold to fill gaps in patrol.

Warnke spoke to KVPR host Elizabeth Arakelian and described the situation as a sinking ship.

Listen to the interview in the player on this page and read the transcript below.

WARNKE: We have this great big ship that's sinking and folks — we call it leg-bailing — they're bailing out. The last three years I've only been able to hire nine deputies a year and we're losing them faster than I can hire them. And I'm running out of people. Flat out running out.

ARAKELIAN: Why are they leaving?

WARNKE: I've got 15, at least 15 that I know of, that applied to other agencies because of the salary and insurance.

ARAKELIAN: It's partly money, then.

WARNKE: It's partly money and health insurance. I just got off the phone with one of my deputies and his health insurance increase is over $5,000 a year. Increase – that's nuts. It's frustrating when I go to five individuals who have the purse and they're saying, ‘Oh sheriff, we support you, but we have to tell you ‘no.’’ So, that's their way of saying that they’ve got a tough decision. Well, you know what? And I hate to say it but we've got several agencies — important — but they're not the ones getting the call in the middle of the night for a homicide.

ARAKELIAN: Why don't you explain to people who don't understand why you went to the Board of Supervisors?

WARNKE: The Board of Supervisors can direct the CEO to find the money. So I want to give them a benefit here to try and get some things done. Now, I do know that they do not have this open checkbook, you know, as in anybody's financing they just don't have it. But, they need to understand — when I say ‘they,’ again I'm referring to the supervisors — we deal with stuff live action. We don't have an opportunity to say ‘Yeah, we got somebody calling in, they’re being robbed. We'll get to it in a week from Tuesday.’ We’ve got to go now. I just lost a senior sergeant — a dedicated, faithful individual to our brand — but he looked up and he flat told me and the undersheriff he does not see this county, or a light at the end of a tunnel with this country, ever happening.

ARAKELIAN: How does that make you feel as the head guy in charge when your sergeant is coming to you and saying ‘I love this job, but I can't stay here’?

WARNKE: Well, it's very frustrating. I've been with this agency for 44 years. If I'm the last gunslinger at this sheriff's office, I'll be taking phone calls in my car and I'll be going out and handling the calls. That's how important it is to me. So the frustration level is because I have no say. I have no ability to crank out the money that the men and women in this agency deserve.

ARAKELIAN: Have you heard anything since you addressed the supervisors?

WARNKE: I will tell you that the supervisors directed the CEO of the county to call me late last night just to tell me that he was directed to call me and say that they're exhaustively working on this situation.

ARAKELIAN: You mentioned, when you addressed the board of supervisors, you may get to the point of pulling camp resource officers out of schools and putting them on patrol. Why don't you talk through a couple of those scenarios you discussed, like not responding to property crimes unless it's ag-related. What are people in Merced County going to potentially see as a change if things don't change on your end?

WARNKE: Property crimes, stolen cars, stolen bicycles, break-ins, home break-ins… if we don't have a suspect, there's gonna be a time where we're not gonna be able to respond. We just don't have the people

ARAKELIAN: In the last year, there was a heinous crime that got national headlines, the trucking family

WERNKE: A year ago in October.

ARAKELIAN: So how does that factor into your department?

WERNKE: We don't have control over what we have to respond to. One of the worst crimes I've ever dealt with last October, a year ago October, and we still had to deal with it. Well, suppose we have another situation. Last year, the floods. We had two areas in this County that stretched our resources to the limit. If I have nobody, I've got nobody. I can tell you this, the citizens in this county when that flooding happened, they were ready to jump in but we shouldn't have to rely on the citizens to jump in. We should be the ones protecting.

A Valley native, Elizabeth earned her bachelor's degree in English Language Literatures from the University of California, Santa Cruz and her master's degree in journalism from New York University. She has covered a range of beats. Her agriculture reporting for the Turlock Journal earned her a first place award from the California Newspaper Publishers Association. While in graduate school she covered the New Hampshire Primary for NBC Owned Television Stations and subsequently worked as a television ratings analyst for the company's business news network, CNBC. Upon returning to California, her role as a higher education public relations professional reconnected her to the Valley's media scene. She is happy to be back to her journalism roots as a local host at KVPR.