Pat Lunney retires, leaves legacy of law enforcement

September 8, 2017

Longtime lawman Pat Lunney literally sailed off into the sunset last Friday — his last day on the job as chief of investigations for the Merced County District Attorney’s Office.
Lunney, well-known in Merced as the former Police Chief, wrapped up a 42-year career by turning in his badge, gun and county-issued sedan, and headed into retirement with a sail boat — a “day cruiser” — waiting on the shore of some exotic bay in a completely different latitude.
The night before he celebrated with colleagues at a packed downtown bar that probably has never seen such a show of top law enforcement brass.
District Attorney Larry Morse led a round of cheers, calling Lunney a “visionary,” and a very good friend. In the crowd applauding were three area police chiefs including Norm Andrade of Merced, along with Sheriff Vern Warnke, former Sheriff Tom Sawyer, former Judge Frank Dougherty, Chief Deputy D.A. Rob Carroll, Undersheriff Jason Goins, Sheriff’s Captain Greg Sullivan, and many more.
“I loved my career every step of the way,” the 69-year-old Lunney told the Times. “I didn’t mind getting up today. I always liked getting up to see what had happened the night before, or to see where we were on a case. … But if I don’t quit now, I’m going to stay another six or seven years, and who knows how you will feel after that time.”
There are some who say Lunney was the youngest police chief in the country when he took over the Merced office in 1983 at the age of 35. “ I don’t know if that is entirely true,” he said, but added that he probably was for this size of city.
He replaced Chief Harold Kulbeth at a time when there were around 60 officers on the force. Some said Lunney “was out of the mold.”
Born in Wyoming, he moved to Merced because his parents had already followed careers here.
Lunney went to Merced College for a couple of years before attending UC Davis. The draft was still in effect in those days, and the Vietnam War was shut down, but young men were still having to serve if they were called on.
In Lunney’s case, he had been trained in the ROTC program so he was perfect for the Army. He became an officer and served actively for a short time.
“I was 27, and I had no idea what I would become,” Lunney recalled.
But then there was a help-wanted ad in Merced for new members of the police and fire departments. He chose the police, because they paid a little bit more. The starting salary was less than $1,000 a month. And he was hired almost immediately.
The town was much smaller in the mid-1970s, and there were really no gang problems, and few people dealing with drugs. Shootings and homicides were rare. And there was virtually no homeless residents in sight. It was a time when officers — in about six patrol cars on any given shift — would sometimes give local drivers a ride home if they had drank a little while out on the town.
In addition, the nearby Castle Air Force Base was a positive. “It was good for the community,” Lunney said. “For the most part we never had any problems with the airmen. And if you did have a problem, you didn’t have to arrest them and put them in the system. All you had to do was go over and talk to the Base Commander, and they would take care of it all.”
Lunney watched, however, as Merced grew and transformed, and the gangs and drugs became major problems. He moved up the ranks with steady determination. He was smart, and brought change and innovation to whatever job he had in the department. He was well liked by his peers, as well as the top brass, who knew that he was management material and could handle special details.
Things did change when Mothers Against Drunk Driving laws were passed in the state. Police officers became enforcers of a much stricter law, and both the city and the state wanted to see results. The “Kind Cop” became less kind. Meanwhile, drugs like heroine and crack cocaine were starting to show up.
Lunney was serving as police chief when Castle Air Force shut down in 1994. When asked how that affected the community, he said: “It eventually caused a major change, and the change was adverse.”
It cost the community jobs and much needed income. Airmen and families who used to rent, slowly moved away, and there was a vacancy factor that was filled with low-income housing options. A socioeconomic shift had begun.
At the same time, Lunney initiated the MPD's first ever Gang Violence Suppression Unit (which is still in existence).
He also went on to assign a resource officer to a high school campus in Merced — at a time when some thought it was a bad idea. Today, the practice is not only widely accepted, the City Council attempt to find more funding to expand the program.
He added two substations in the north and south of parts of Merced, and he took volunteer senior officers and created a community service patrol.
In the 1990s, Lunney was also among the first chiefs in the state to update the department’s computer systems with state-of-the-art public safety software.
And over his 15-year stint as the city’s top cop, Chief Lunney would earn statewide recognition for community based policing.
Leaders took notice, and in 1999, at the age of 52, Lunney found himself being interviewed by State Attorney General Bill Lockyer for a job as Director of Law Enforcement for the California Department of Justice.
“I remember I was actually in opposition to what I was told about task forces and forensic labs around the state,” he recalled. “I told Lockyer the division couldn’t do well what they were trying to do. If they wanted to be effective, they needed to scale back some of their scope, and focus on what I call ‘Centers of Excellence.’”
Lunney suggested that the state would be better suited if the various offices specialized in different kinds of forensics, instead of each one trying to do it all.
Lockyer, known as a policy guru, liked what he heard, and Lunney was hired.
Once again, Lunney was on the cutting edge of law enforcement, and now looking for solutions to California’s growing crime problem.
At the Department of Justice, he was instrumental in developing the intelligence assets of the state in the wake of the 9/11 tragedy. He was also in a leadership role at the department when the underlying Bureau of Forensic Services built its DNA data base that is in successful crime-solving use today. He also helped bring valuable investigative aid to Merced after the death of MPD officer Stephan Gray — they caught the killer in 17 days — and to Modesto during the Laci Peterson case.
When Lockyer was termed out of office in 2007-08, Lunney was wondering what to do, or if he should retire. That’s when Merced County District Attorney Larry Morse got on the phone and begged him to come back to Merced and work as a chief investigator.
Lunney happily accepted the offer, and quickly became a calming and confident force behind the scenes of a hectic office that is log-jammed with legal cases.
He also helped create this region's first volunteer Crime Stopper program. That included finding a board of directors, fundraising and maintaining the anonymous call-in operation that collects tips to solve crimes and offers rewards.
In 2014, the former police chief campaigned for the open County Sheriff seat in 2014, but lost to current Sheriff Vern Warnke.
Today, all Lunney wants to think about is enjoying retirement by letting the sea winds take his sail boat into new relaxing waters.
But local residents might also see him around at different times of the season.
He told the Times he’s keeping his house in Merced — a place he will always consider as his hometown.

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