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Bakersfield police to overhaul use-of-force guidelines to settle civil rights suit by California

California has been going after the Bakersfield Police Department over excessive force claims for the last five years.

(CN) — Settling a civil rights investigation brought by the California Department of Justice, the city of Bakersfield and its police department agreed Monday to update use-of-force guidelines and implement a sweeping range of training policies. 

Under the five-year plan the department will stop using Tasers on handcuffed people, limit officers’ ability to restrain subjects face down and require any use of force above standard handcuffing to be reported.

California Attorney General Rob Bonta said the investigation, spurred by a flood of citizen complaints and local news reports, will boost trust between the embattled department and residents of the Central Valley city.

“When communities speak out about injustice, it’s our job as leaders not just to listen but take action to correct it,” Bonta said. “These reforms are both needed and necessary.”

Monday’s announcement is the latest chapter of state’s investigation into the police department and the Kern County Sheriff’s Office that began nearly five years ago.

Then-Attorney General Kamala Harris said a flood of excessive force allegations and inmate deaths prompted the decision to open the joint civil rights probe.

"These investigations will objectively, impartially and thoroughly examine whether the Kern County Sheriff's Office or the Bakersfield Police Department engaged in a pattern or practice of excessive force or other civil rights violations," Harris said in December 2016.

The Department of Justice closed its investigation into the county last year, with the sheriff’s department agreeing to stop using chokeholds, equip deputies with body cameras and to be more transparent with use of force incidents.

Though the city admits no fault under the settlement, the damning probe claims the city “failed to uniformly and adequately enforce the law” due to a lack of oversight and outdated policies within the department.

Bonta says the department had a “pattern” of using excessive force — including deadly force against people undergoing mental health crises — and conducted unconstitutional stops, searches, arrests and seizures in recent years. Furthermore, investigators say the department “unreasonably deployed canines” and effectively overlooked civilian complaints.

“Such failure has led the Attorney General’s Office to conclude that Bakersfield Police Department has engaged in a pattern or practice of conduct that deprives persons of rights, privileges, or immunities secured or protected by the Constitution or laws of the United States and the Constitution or laws of the State of California,” the complaint filed Monday in Kern County Superior Court.

The city of Bakersfield will implement a series of police reforms to settle the civil rights investigation brought by the state of California. (Screenshot via Courthouse News)

During a press conference, Bakersfield Police Chief Greg Terry said the decision to settle was difficult but necessary to avoid further costly litigation. He said some of the reforms have already been implemented, such as body-worn cameras for officers and new racial and identity sensitivity training.

“The choice came down to litigating the past or controlling our future, reassuring our community and moving forward in a positive way,” said Terry.

The police chief added parts of the agreement will “exceed state law” and that the department will “diligently” honor the agreement.

Aside from the array of policing misconduct, the investigation also found the department didn’t offer residents with limited English proficiency fair access to services or give them equal employment opportunities.

Located approximately 110 miles north of Los Angeles in Kern County, Bakersfield is the state’s ninth largest city with over 380,000 residents. Agriculture, oil and health care form the core of the city’s economy and according to recent census data, 50% of its population identifies as Hispanic or Latino. 

For decades critics have accused the department of targeting minorities and of refusing to crack down on excessive force.

This month, the American Civil Liberties Union Southern California dubbed the department “one of the deadliest” in California and the country in a new report.

“Bakersfield Police Department remains one of the deadliest police departments in the state and country, shooting unarmed individuals and people with mental illness or impairment with alarming frequency, and killing Black and Latine people in the vast majority of deadly force cases,” the report states. 

In response, the department called the report “uncredible and irresponsible.”

Monday’s announcement is the latest chapter of state’s investigation into the police department and the Kern County Sheriff’s Office that began nearly five years ago.

Then-Attorney General Kamala Harris said a flood of excessive force allegations and inmate deaths prompted the decision to open the joint civil rights probe.

"These investigations will objectively, impartially and thoroughly examine whether the Kern County Sheriff's Office or the Bakersfield Police Department engaged in a pattern or practice of excessive force or other civil rights violations," Harris said in December 2016.

The Department of Justice closed its investigation into the county last year, with the sheriff’s department agreeing to stop using chokeholds, equip deputies with body cameras and to be more transparent with use of force incidents.

Attorney General Bonta said he expects the department to comply with Monday’s settlement and noted an independent monitor will be assigned to oversee its implementation. He added that the court will retain jurisdiction over the matter over the next five years. 

Bonta’s Department of Justice is also conducting so-called “pattern of practice” investigations into the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, the Vallejo Police Department and the San Francisco Police Department. 

Follow Nick Cahill on Twitter

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