Feds chip in money to the Merced Multi-Agency Gang Task Force to help fight gangs

Tuesday, Nov. 18, 2008

The Merced Multi-Agency Gang Task Force got a $50,000 boost in its fight against gangs, thanks to a federal anti-gang initiative.

Merced County District Attorney Larry Morse II was joined Monday by U.S. Attorney McGregor W. Scott and local law enforcement officials to recognize the awarding of the grant. A brief program was held at Stephan Gray Neighborhood Park to mark the occasion.

The funds, obtained through the federal Project Safe Neighborhoods/Anti-Gang Initiative, will mainly be used to pay overtime for officers serving on the task force, according to Atwater Police Chief Richard Hawthorne, who leads it. Hawthorne said the dollars can also go toward buying equipment.

Word of the grant comes a year and two months after the gang task force was founded. The task force, managed by the state’s Bureau of Narcotics Enforcement, was created to combine the efforts of law enforcement agencies with the aim of reducing the presence of gangs countywide.

“We are very pleased with the success of the task force,” Morse said. “Each of the individual cities had fashioned their own response to gang activities within their borders, but they didn’t have a coordinated effort. This has given us a coordinated effort.”

The sharing of resources among law enforcement agencies, Morse said, has helped investigators document the scope of the county’s gang problem. According to the task force’s first year statistics, there are 53 criminal street gangs in Merced County. Twenty-six of those gangs are in the city of Merced.

The groups documented by the task force include a wide range of criminal gangs, ranging from biker gangs like the Hells Angels and Mongols to more than 30 Norteno and Sureno gangs.

The task force even documented gangs in small communities like Santa Nella and Gustine.

Since its inception, the task force has arrested 104 gang members and seized 4.4 ounces of methamphetamine and 38.34 ounces of marijuana.

There are 5,627 gang members in the county, according to the task force’s statistics.

The program was held at Stephan Gray Neighborhood Park in honor of the fallen Merced police officer who was killed by a gang member on April 15, 2004.

Gray’s widow, Michelle Gray, attended the program, thanking members of the task force and law enforcement officials for their commitment to fighting the scourge of gangs. Gray also spoke about how passionate her husband was about keeping gangs off the street.

“Your efforts have made my family and all families in Merced County safer,” Gray said.

The task force is composed of officers from the Merced County Sheriff’s Department, Merced Police Department, Atwater Police Department, Livingston Police Department, Los Banos Police Department, the Merced County Probation Department and the District Attorney’s Investigations Unit.

Funds from the Project Safe Neighborhoods program are allocated using a formula based on the population and level of crime in each U.S. attorney’s district, according to the Bureau of Justice Assistance’s Web site.

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