Fresno disbands cop unit - December, 6, 2001

    The Fresno Police Department's Violent Crimes Suppression Unit, a quick-strike, almost paramilitary team of 20 to 30 submachine-gun-wielding officers born at a time when the city's annual murder rate was pushing 100, will cease to exist April 1.Police Chief Jerry Dyer announced the unit's demise Wednesday during a meeting with The Bee's editorial board where he unveiled his reorganization plans for the department.The VCSU was created in December 1994 by then-Chief Ed Winchester when Fresno was suffering so much violent crime that some community leaders worried the city was on the verge of anarchy.The unit, designed to fight violent, gun-toting criminals on their own turf, has done its job to such an extent that the department now can move on to other law enforcement strategies, Dyer said."They've been a very good unit, especially in times when crime was really out of control in this city," he said. "... But, crime is not out of control in this city any longer."The department will continue to aggressively fight violent crime, but responsibilities now shouldered by a separate, centralized VCSU will be dispersed to the city's five policing districts as part of his decentralization efforts, Dyer said.Also, Dyer said he is adding 57 officers to patrol, adding 25 investigators and tripling the number of officers downtown to 18.Dyer said these changes involve reassignments, not new hires.City spokesman Randy Reed said Mayor Alan Autry is aware of Dyer's plan. The mayor is "confident" that Dyer is making the right decision, Reed said.Officers in the VCSU, as it often is called, wear special uniforms and are armed with the kind of automatic and semiautomatic weapons usually associated with a standing army. The high-profile unit with its dramatic mission attracted attention from the national media, where pundits debated the "militarization of Main Street."In less than four months, the unit will exist nowhere except in the dusty annals of Fresno history. Said Dyer: "You will not see them patrolling in the manner they have in the past."At times, this aggressive manner -- described as "kick butts and take names" by a former police officer -- generated charges from Police Department critics that VCSU was itself out of control. Some called it a "rogue" unit, having law unto itself.Whether this was the case or, as Dyer contends, the VCSU's tough and dangerous job inevitably led it into some gray areas, perhaps will always be grist for debate.However, there is no doubt that the unit found itself at the center of several high-profile lawsuits in its brief life.In two of the lawsuits, as Dyer is quick to note, the city was exonerated. In October 2000, four police officers were exonerated in the wrongful-death lawsuit in the 1997 killing of William Lee Fowler Jr.This June, six officers were absolved of any wrongdoing in the shooting death of former pro football player Tom Neville in 1998. Members of the VCSU were involved in both fatal shootings.In September 2000, former VCSU member Myrna Loran won a $450,000 settlement from the city over her accusations of sexual harassment and hostile work environment.Dyer said the lawsuits didn't affect his decision. Rather, it was his desire to create a different perception of the Police Department: "I don't want to project an image, by any means, that we're going to be soft on crime. Because we're not. But, at the same time, I recognize that ... we have to do everything we can to open up lines of communication [and] make the public feel they're not being policed through Force. "We're not a police state. All of those things play a role" in the decision.Loran, who is no longer a Fresno police officer, called her former unit's demise "overdue."She said the VCSU once played an important role in the war on crime, but its effectiveness was compromised by mismanagement and officers who, caught up with power and pressure, lost sight of their true mission."You're on an adrenaline run.