The Disruptive Area Response Team, also known as DART, is serving Merced once again after being disbanded in January
By BRIANNA VACCARI l August 30, 2023
MERCED (CVJC) – A team of Merced Police officers that focused on non-emergency “nuisance” calls from business owners and residents is finding a new way forward despite staffing shortages that put the popular program on the city’s chopping block.
The 9-year-old Disruptive Area Response Team, commonly known as DART, went dormant at the start of 2023 despite protests from locals who credited it for keeping homeless encampments in check and curbing street crimes like prostitution and petty theft.
During a January Merced City Council meeting, rumors that DART would be disbanded prompted pushback from Tom Hansbury, a service manager at one of the city’s largest auto dealers, Razzari Ford.
“Do you guys even realize what they do for the businesses?” Hansbury asked the council. “They’re at our beck and call.”
Over the years, Hansbury said he came to know the DART officers by name because they responded so often to reports of catalytic converter thefts and problems associated with multiple homeless encampments that sprung up along Bear Creek, which sits near the dealership’s property line on the city’s western edge.
But protests from Hansbury and others didn’t prevent DART’s demise. Just two days later, the police department’s acting chief announced on Facebook that DART officers were being reassigned to fill staffing holes on patrol duty.
Merced Police Department has struggled to get staffing levels to where they’re needed for Merced’s growing population. In the January Facebook post, then-acting Chief Joe Weiss said the size of its force — 98 sworn officers — had barely changed from 2010. Merced’s population, however, grew by about 15%, to more than 91,500 people, over that same period, according to U.S. Census figures.
As of this week, the department employs 85 sworn officers and has a dozen vacancies, plus a number of sworn officers on long-term leave.
Collaboration between officers, organizations
The staffing crisis’s impact on DART created an opportunity for the department to look to several community organizations to build collaborative approaches to address the sort of incidents that took up the majority of DART’s attention — issues related to the unhoused population.
While police officers long have worked with service providers and community advocates, those partnerships evolved after the team went dormant to become even more collaborative and to focus on providing services to those in need, said Sgt. Jose Barajas, who oversees DART.
A group of collaborators meet monthly to coordinate their work. They included staff and volunteers from Merced County Behavioral Health and Adult Protective Services; Veteran Affairs; the nonprofit substance-abuse provider WestCare; Merced County Rescue Mission; Valley Crisis Center; firefighters and more.
“There’s so many various reasons that the unhoused are out on the streets. Typically, it tends to be either drug abuse, alcohol abuse, or mental health, or a combination of those things,” Barajas said.
“If we’re just arresting or moving people along from one encampment to another, it’s not really looking at a long-term solution to the problem,” he said. “It’s more housing, or the social service aspect of needing a mental health clinician. It’s more of helping them align with getting some kind of services to get them off the streets.”
The collaboration continued even as DART reformed in June when several officers who were assigned to local schools became available for the summer break. With schools restarting in August, most of those school resource officers returned to campuses, leaving only one available for DART duty – Thomas Martinez, who previously worked as a school resource officer.
Response times impacted after team disbanded
While the department has offered overtime pay to officers who work extra hours with DART, leaders agree it’s not a sustainable solution. Fortunately, the coalition of community partners that formed over the first half of 2023 now means DART is larger than just the one officer, Barajas said.
“We’ve definitely branched out and then broadened our team,” he said.
DART’s absence was felt by advocates with Valley Crisis Center, a nonprofit serving survivors of human trafficking, sexual assault and domestic violence.
The center works closely with law enforcement officers, who often accompany advocates as they respond to calls. Without DART, there were fewer officers available and the officer’s response times grew longer, said program director Lupe Garcia.
“We have to ensure safety not only for clients but also for ourselves,” Garcia said. “So really having a local law enforcement officer out there allows us to provide that service to clients.”
Complaints from the public filed through the Merced Connect mobile app also became backlogged, Barajas said. At times, there would be 50 requests needing attention. But that has come down in recent months, and Barajas encourages residents to use Merced Connect to report blight or other non-emergency issues.
“It’s up and running, and our response time has definitely improved now that we have somebody staffed as a DART member that can respond to these calls,” Barajas said.
Merced County Behavioral Health staffers began working with DART in 2021. Since then, more organizations and agencies have joined, said Julianne Sims, the department’s assistant director
“What is exciting is, even though we had a little bit of a setback, it allowed an opportunity for more partners to come forward and for us to have a more collaborative approach, because that’s really what the population needs,” Sims said.
“They have a lot of serious needs, and a lot of needs compounded on other needs,” Sims said. “So this gives an opportunity for more people to come forward and say, ‘Here’s some support that we can give.’”
On any given day, mental health worker Crystal Cerda may accompany Merced police officers on a call dealing with someone living on the street. It’s her job to talk to the person and connect them to services, such as getting them signed up for food stamps or taking them to the Merced County Navigation Center, a shelter open to all regardless of religious or sobriety status.
“The clients appreciate that because we have more connections to offer,” Cerda said.
Brianna Vaccari is the governmental accountability/watchdog reporter for the Central Valley Journalism Collaborative, a nonprofit newsroom based in Merced.