Merced County Sheriff Vern Warnke said "it's getting kind of scary" regarding the challenges that the sheriff's office is facing with the pressing need for more deputies.
"Ringing the alarm," Warnke provided the update on staffing and operations during the Merced County Board of Supervisors meeting in Merced on Tuesday.
The sheriff's office is currently 18 deputies short of being fully staffed, with 15 going through a background check phase as part of an application with other law enforcement agencies.
But it's not just deputies, Warnke emphasized.
The sheriff's office is experiencing staffing challenges affecting areas of the agency from patrol and dispatch to investigations and corrections, the sheriff said.
"The state of the sheriff's office," Warnke said, "is dire."
Warnke added that the sheriff's office is losing staff to agencies in neighboring counties that can offer law enforcement officers better pay as well as better benefits packages.
"We've got people leaving who were absolutely dedicated to wear this brand, because they don't see a light at the end of our tunnel," Warnke said while addressing the board.
Need for more staffing
There are currently nine detectives on staff at the Merced County Sheriff's Office, which is about half as many as Warnke said he needs.
Warnke said the sheriff's office is also short 30 correctional positions out of 108 total.
Compounding the issue of deputy vacancies, Warnke said there are currently eight deputies who are out due to injury or long term leave.
Additionally, the agency is also seeing a staffing shortage in the county animal services bureau, which saw more than 6,000 animals come through the shelter, according to Warnke.
According to Warnke, his agency lost a sergeant to an agency in a neighboring county where that officer can earn a greater salary as a deputy than as a sergeant in the Merced County Sheriff's Office.
Warnke said he has seen the impact that instances such as officers leaving has had on the morale of the deputies on staff. Warnke said he hopes the staff is not blaming the administration.
"Our unions need to get in here and get on the ball to protect their rights, the sheriff shouldn't have to be up there pleading their case but I do it," said Warnke. "It's the sheriff's job to take care of the entire agency. Unless something changes, we're going to be hurting."
In addition to the job vacancies in patrol and corrections, Warnke said the Sheriff's office is down four dispatch positions. Due to the lack of staffing within the corrections bureau, staff members are currently required to work three 16 hour shifts.
"We had to drop patrol staffing to seven deputies," Warnke said. "It's not that I want to, I don't have any place to grab from."
Minimal to no staffing, sheriff says
According to Warnke, the sheriff's office currently has no active gang enforcement or proactive enforcement team due to having to move those deputies to patrol. The sheriff's office SET team is currently down to one deputy.
"If we eliminate the SET team, we got nobody to deal with our homeless, plain and simple," Warnke said. "We also have nobody to deal with our illegal marijuana grows. We're getting in desperate times.
"Folks, I'm riding the alarm."
If the current situation continues, Warnke said the sheriff's office could drop the number of patrol deputies to a total of six, leaving only three sheriff's office patrol vehicles with two deputies to a vehicle, to cover roughly 2,000 square miles of Merced County.
"That's unacceptable," said Warnke.
Warnke said that if it reaches that state, it would leave one deputy working overnight covering an area of Merced County from Snelling to Atwater and to El Nido. It could also result in one patrol vehicle covering the county from Pacheco Pass to the Madera County line along Highway 152.
Warnke said state of the staffing levels would also result in patrol deputies only responding to in-progress calls or felony calls for service with a suspect. Aside from that, deputies will not be able to respond.
This could also result in detectives not working reported property crimes unless those crimes are agriculture related, according to Warnke.
The sheriff's office also may have to eliminate School Resource Officer positions.
Warnke said there is also a danger that the sheriff's office would have to eliminate the position held by a deputy assigned to work with the Health and Human Services Agency investigating cases such as child abuse, so that deputy can be utilized in a street patrol position.
Sheriff's office employees 'burnt out'
During the meeting, District 4 Supervisor Lloyd Pareira Jr., responded to Warnke's comments saying that the increase in healthcare costs is a countywide issue stating that he believed county officials were close to where they need to be.
Warnke previously raised concerns to the board about staffing and wages during the Aug. 8, 2023 board of supervisors meeting.
Some deputies are even working eight to 12 hour shifts in Merced County court after working a 12 hour graveyard shift, according to Warnke.
There are even times when dispatchers are called upon to work an extra four hours after working a 12 hour shift as the Sheriff's Office currently has four vacant dispatcher positions.
"They're just burnt out, they're tired," said Warnke.
According to Warnke, the sheriff's office faced a similar staffing shortage in 2015. Warnke told the board of supervisors on Tuesday he worries this time it will be worse.
Warnke said he had a full contingency of detectives five years ago and the sheriff's office was fully staffed.
"I need twice as many detectives as I've got," said Warnke. "They're getting their asses handed to them regarding the amount of calls that they're on and homicides and just the violence — and they don't even have time to go after the property crimes."
The shortage of deputies has even caused Warnke himself to respond to more and more calls due to the lack of available deputies.
The shortage has led to lengthier response times as deputies are unable to break away from in-progress calls.
"I think there's a potential for danger," Warnke said. "I think there's a chance for our criminal element to grasp what's going on."
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