Commentary: Kern County Sheriff Has Worst Record in Nation in Officer-Involved Shootings, but Denies AG’s Allegations

Kern County Sheriff Donny Youngblood

By David Greenwald

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra—appointed by Biden to head US Health and Human Services—has been rightly criticized for failing to hold police accountable for misconduct and officer-involved shootings.

On Tuesday, he rolled out a major announcement with a settlement aimed at reforming “a wide range of practices at the Kern County Sheriff’s Office “

The settlement came after a four-year investigation by the California DOJ.  They had major findings with regard to the use of unreasonable force, unreasonable stops, searches, and seizures, and failure to exercise appropriate management and supervision of deputies, both on patrol and in the county’s jails.

“We’ve entered a new era for policing in America. Accountability and transparency are drivers of today’s reform and many in law enforcement in California are accepting the challenge,” said Attorney General Becerra. “Today’s settlement with the Sheriff’s Office is a critical step in helping rebuild trust and partnership in Kern County. It won’t happen overnight, and we’ll all have to stay on task. But, these are the steps our communities want to see us launch for safer neighborhoods.”

So far so good, especially since the Kern County sheriff has a long history of complaints.

But then Sheriff Donny Youngblood got up and said, “I want to make it clear that we don’t agree with everything that the attorney general has said.”

He said, “I do not believe that the men and women of this organization have EVER violated the constitutional rights, have ever used excessive force that we didn’t deal with punitively when we found it—that just doesn’t happen in our organization.”

“We disagreed with that,” he said.  “With that said, we realized that when the DOJ came in, we realized that they found deficiencies and when they pointed them out, they were correct…”

The press conference which focused mainly on the agreement seemed to gloss over the very egregious history of the Kern County sheriff, who along with the Bakersfield Police, have about the worst record in the country in officer-involved shootings and use-of-force complaints.

The history here is bad.  The Guardian in 2015 did a series on “the story of America’s deadliest police.”  They write: “Police in Kern County, California, have killed more people per capita than in any other American county in 2015. The Guardian examines how, with little oversight, officers here became the country’s most lethal.”

In 2017, the ACLU released a report “on the use of excessive force by the Kern County Sheriff’s Office and Bakersfield Police Department. The findings of the study show a disturbing pattern of shootings, beatings and canine attacks by police and sheriff’s deputies, beyond what was called for in numerous law enforcement situations, especially when dealing with unarmed individuals.”

The ACLU report found that more than a quarter of Bakersfield Police shootings since 2009 killed someone unarmed.  A majority of shootings by Kern County sheriff’s deputies involved someone unarmed or armed only with a knife.

ACLU writes: “The study also points to evidence that canine attacks are overused by police officers and sheriff’s deputies in the area, and that there is a practice of filing intimidating or retaliatory charges against individuals subjected to excessive force.

“The use of excessive force and intimidation tactics, in many cases, violate citizens’ constitutional rights. Yet these abuses are built into the very culture of these law enforcement agencies.”

And there is this documentary from KCET in Los Angeles.

“Relatives of the victims have organized, holding protests in front of the Bakersfield Police Department, urging for more accountability and transparency in the form of body cameras and thorough homicide investigations. Hear from law enforcement officials who must make split-second decisions when their lives are threatened, and families who continue to grieve and fight for justice.”

But Sheriff Youngblood disputed the findings, even as he agreed to the remedy which admittedly is rather extensive.

The changes will require the sheriff’s office to publicize every officer-involved shooting and requires departmental supervisors investigate uses of force.

However, the changes still allow the sheriff’s office to investigate itself to determine whether the deputies used appropriate levels of force.

“The Sheriff’s Office will continue to investigate those cases, which will determine whether they followed policy and whether they were within policy,” the sheriff said on Tuesday.  “The ones that have bad consequences, we submit to the district attorney for a review.”

That’s a big problem because the sheriff continues to claim he does not agree with the finding by the AG and does not believe that the department has been involved in a use-of-force case or an officer-involved shooting where his department did not take appropriate and proper action.

Moreover, the DA’s office is hardly a bastion of progressive reform either.  In fact, the same report from the Guardian that blasted law enforcement also was critical of the DA’s office.

Former District Attorney Lisa Green in a statement to the Guardian said that she would ensure that any reviews of killings by police would be “conducted in a fair and professional manner.”

But the Guardian pointed out that they received thousands from police unions and officers and that relatives of those killed by law enforcement said “they were exasperated by the insular investigation process that followed the deaths, and did not trust local authorities to respond even-handedly.”

Cynthia Zimmer was elected DA in 2018 with the support of law enforcement, then there were six officer-involved shootings in 2019, and nine in 2018.

My question is how do you solve a problem that you won’t admit you have?  And how is the solution by the AG to allow the department to continue to oversee its own use-of-force cases the appropriate oversight response from the state?

The agreement puts in place new steps that range from strengthening the use-of-force reporting, revising policies, and modified canine-related policies, and it also calls for more body cameras—but body cameras only work if there is an enforcement end willing to hold sworn law enforcement officials accountable, and there is no indication that the sheriff is willing to do that.  Instead, despite all the evidence to the contrary, he continues to assert that they don’t have a problem.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

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About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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