MERCED, Calif. — A police officer shot over the weekend in a gunfight with a suspected gang member has been released from the hospital and is recovering at home with his family, the Merced police chief said Sunday in a news conference.
The officer, whose name was not released, was shot at least twice early Saturday after stopping a vehicle around 2:30 a.m. in the 2100 block of H Street. Chief Norman Andrade described the wounded officer as a veteran policeman in Merced who has a wife and children.
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"We're the last line between good and evil," Andrade told reporters. "When you shoot one of our officers, you might as well be shooting the Constitution of the United States."
The police chief on Sunday said the officer's identity would be released "at some point" but did not have a timetable.
Additionally, the two other officers who returned fire during the incident have been placed on paid administrative leave pending the outcome of the department's investigation, a standard procedure nationwide in all officer-involved shooting cases, police said. The names of those officers also have not been released.
Andrade declined to comment on all the officer's injuries, but said he underwent surgery at a Fresno hospital to repair his right hand. Andrade also said the officer was struck by at least one gunshot in his safety vest, though he declined to say whether any bullets pierced the protective armor.
The passenger in the vehicle, Jaime M. Caudillo, 30, of Los Banos, is the man investigators said opened fire during the stop. The driver, Steven P. Rincon, 24, of Fresno, did not have a firearm, police said.
Both men were taken into custody during a large manhunt in the area.
Police on Sunday said the incident began when Rincon "failed to yield" to traffic around 2:30 a.m. at the intersection of G and 21st streets in Merced, apparently turning in front of an oncoming vehicle. The officer witnessed the turning vehicle and initiated the stop. Two other officers also came to the scene as backup, which Andrade said is standard procedure.
As the officer approached the vehicle, police said, Caudillo fired at least one shot from a handgun, believed to be a .38-caliber or .357-caliber revolver. That weapon has been recovered, Capt. Tom Trindad said.
Officers returned fire, striking Caudillo "multiple times," and the vehicle sped away from the scene, heading west on 22nd Street. The vehicle crashed in an alley a short time later about a block away from the scene of the shootout, police said.
Paul Gibbons, 47, a UC Merced professor who lives in the area, was one of the residents who said they heard the gunshots early Saturday morning. Gibbons said he was already awake and heard at least half a dozen gunshots, followed by the sound of police cars and sirens.
"It sounded like someone emptied a clip. Rapid fire — that's what I heard," Gibbons said.
An intense manhunt ensued, led by the Police Department's SWAT team with assistance from the Merced County Sheriff's Department and the California Highway Patrol, including the CHP helicopter. Police shut down several blocks, methodically searching every property from 21st to 22nd streets between G and I streets, Andrade said.
Caudillo was found a short time later hiding in the backyard of a home near the area of the the crash. He was taken to a hospital and received treatment for his gunshot wounds before he was booked at the Merced County jail. Rincon was arrested around 12:20 p.m. after he was found hiding inside a home on West 21st Street. Police said Rincon resisted the officer briefly before he was taken into custody.
Trindad said it was unclear whether Rincon's facial injuries occurred during the struggle with officers or after he crashed his vehicle while fleeing the shooting scene. Rincon was not shot during either incident.
Both suspects remained in custody Sunday at the Merced County jail on suspicion of attempted murder of a police officer, being felons in possession of firearms and street-gang participation.
Details of Caudillo's and Rincon's prior criminal convictions were not available Sunday, but Andrade said Caudillo was recently released from state prison under the terms of Assembly Bill 109, a highly criticized law passed in 2011 that transferred responsibility for certain offenses from the state to counties.
"Had it not been for AB 109, he'd have been behind bars," Andrade said Sunday.
Earlier this month, Andrade told the Merced City Council he was concerned about the number of assaults against Merced police officers reported in recent years. In a subsequent interview with the Merced Sun-Star, Andrade described what he said was a troubling trend in officer assaults.
There were 22 cases in 2014 of Merced police officers being assaulted. In 2013, there were 31 cases where officers were assaulted and 32 cases in 2012. The department reported 23 cases in 2011 and 24 in 2010, according to statistics obtained by the Sun-Star.
The statistics also show that the number of incidents in which Merced police officers have used any type of force during an arrest have declined each year for the past four years.
Detective Joe Deliman, president of the Merced Police Officers Association, said he was "frustrated" over the staffing levels at the department. "I think all the officers are extremely frustrated — it's a constant battle with the city to get enough officers; it's the jails being forced to let people out back onto the streets, the amount of overtime all the officers are working," Deliman said.
During the last six months of 2014, the city spent more than $500,000 on police overtime due to short staffing levels, according to Andrade.
Mayor Stan Thurston said he shares the frustration, especially with the number of assaults on city police officers. Thurston said the council hopes to add a minimum of one police officer position to the department each year for the next five years.
"And we'll do more than that, if we can," Thurston said. "We need to add two detective positions, we need more patrolmen and we need at least a part-time traffic unit."
Exactly what the city can do to beef up the department is unclear. It's also unclear how much of difference adding five officers over five years will make for a department that went from more than 110 officers in 2007 to fewer than 85 today.
Andrade on Sunday reiterated his belief that the department needs a combination of more officers, technological improvements and public cooperation, but noted "there's no silver bullet" to prevent all crime.
Prior to Saturday's incident, the last time a Merced police officer was shot was in 2006. In that case, Sgt. Curt Gorman was shot by parolee-at-large Dean Tully Wright, 36, of Merced.
Gorman survived the shooting. Wright was shot and killed during a gunfire exchange with police inside an apartment on Edwards Avenue.
Saturday's incident was the first time a Merced police officer has fired at a suspect since April 26. In that case, robbery suspect Kandice M. Honiker, 27, pointed a loaded 9 mm semi-automatic Beretta at a police officer and was shot and killed by police.
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