A countywide initiative launched by the Merced County District Attorney’s Office is taking an innovative approach to law enforcement and gang suppression.

The Violence Interruption and Prevention Emergency Response Team, better known as VIPER, is marshaling law enforcement intelligence resources to feed critical information to officers on the street and to assist with investigations.

District Attorney Larry Morse presented an overview of the program to the Gustine City Council in late November.

Merced County’s high homicide rate - much of which was attributed to gang violence - was the genesis for the program, Morse explained.

His office came to the conclusion that traditional law enforcement techniques were not the solution, and with the help of Assemblyman Adam Gray landed $4.5 million in funding for a three-year project.

The premise, Morse explained, was that “the most effective technique for dealing with gang violence was an intelligence operation. It is not just putting more police officers on the street. It is always good to have more police officers, but what we were really learning was that the intelligence component of the strategy was missing.”

The unit, led by William Olson, chief investigator for the district attorney’s office, is staffed with six analysts who pore over crime trends and investigative reports (including cold cases) to not only solve but deter crimes.

“You can still solve crime the old-fashioned way, but when you are trying to move forward in this new generation of law enforcement you have to take a different approach,” Olson told Mattos Newspapers. “Rather than putting more cops out on the street, which has an impact, you have better intelligence out there that gives us a better rate of solving crime. It also gives law enforcement tools and information that will help them target crime before it can develop....the approach is to try to do predictive policing.”

Two of the analysts are assigned to the West Side, Olson noted, serving the area that runs from Dos Palos to Gustine.

“We are giving the West Side more intelligence, and we are helping the agencies share their information,” he explained. “Gustine has their known criminals....the ones they are worried about are the ones who come into town from outside the area. Those are the ones we are able to provide intelligence to.”

In addition to the VIPER analysts providing information, Olson noted, individual agencies can turn to the special unit to request their services regarding a specific crime or a trend they are seeing.

Analysts, he said, “look at things differently than a detective sitting behind a desk.”

The unit can mine a wealth of information about an individual who is the subject of a criminal investigation, Olson added.

Information can be gleaned from public records, social media, electronic devices and more, he noted.

Merced County had averaged 27 homicides a year for a three-year period, Olson said, giving it the unwanted distinction of ranking either No. 1 or No. 2 in homicides per capita among California counties.

That toll felt to nine last year, Olson related, and as of mid-December the county had recorded 16 homicides - only three of which were gang-related.

As the VIPER program nears its first year of operation, Olson and Morse emphasized, the ongoing goal is to continue reducing violent crime and improving its quality of life in the process.

That campaign, Olson noted, includes an effort to develop community-based programs which help steer youth away from gang activity in the first place, with a specific emphasis on reaching those ages 12-18.

Part of that effort, he added, is a concerted effort to keep students in school.

Morse, who asked the Gustine council to consider supporting VIPER financially when the state grant expires, said he believes the program is proving successful and will be a model for others to follow.

“We really believe that we are on the right track,” Morse told the council, “that we have identified a strategy that will bring down the violence that has plagued the (Merced County) community for too long.”