California, Kern County Sheriff Reach Reform Deal to End AG Probe

Kern County Sheriff Donny Youngblood announces major reforms for his office on the use of excessive force as part of a settlement with the California Attorney General’s Office. (Screenshot provided by the Kern County Sheriff’s Office)

BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (CN) — Sheriff’s officers in Kern County, California, must stop using chokeholds while in the field and will be able to stop their colleagues if they see them use the move, the California Attorney General’s Office said Tuesday in announcing a major settlement between the county and state.

A pattern of vicious police dog attacks, beatings and deadly shootings reportedly carried out by the Kern County Sheriff’s Office against unarmed people prompted an investigation by the state attorney general four years ago.

Attorney General Xavier Becerra said the settlement between the state of California and the sheriff’s department announced Tuesday will “help rebuild trust and partnership” between residents, law enforcement, the state and Sheriff Donny Youngblood, who has held the office since 2007.

“It won’t happen overnight, and we’ll all have to stay on task,” Becerra said at a press conference. “But these are the steps our communities want to see us launch for safer neighborhoods. We look forward to working with Sheriff Youngblood and Kern County’s civic leaders to make today’s settlement a success.”

Roughly 840,000 people live in Kern County, a largely rural county north of Los Angeles that is home to farms, oil rigs and Edwards Air Force Base.

The reform settlement includes a five-year plan that will address complaints from the community on aggressive policing carried out by deputies.

Chokeholds will be prohibited and officers are empowered to stop colleagues from using them. The reforms are detailed in a 59-page settlement filed in Kern County Superior Court that accompanied Tuesday’s settlement announcement.

Youngblood said he doesn’t agree with everything the Becerra’s office found as part of its investigation.

“I do not believe the men and women of this organization have ever violated constitutional rights, have ever used excessive force that we didn’t deal with punitively,” the sheriff said in the press conference with Becerra. “That just doesn’t happen in our organization.”

Despite his disagreement with some of the investigation’s results, Youngblood said the findings helped his office recognize deficiencies in their policies.

The county could either fight the findings in court or “go to the table” and work with Becerra’s office, Youngblood — who agreed with everything laid out in the stipulated judgment that details the settlement agreement — said.

Deputies will be equipped with body cameras. Supervisors will need to file use of force reports from the field and the department will share its findings on police shootings, deaths and other matters with the public. Police dogs will be deployed in a “find and bark” manner rather than a “find and bite” approach. Training will now involve de-escalation, treating people with dignity and respect, being neutral and other new priorities.

The stipulated judgment says the type of force used by officers will be proportionate to the threat.

The reforms stem from complaints of excessive force by the department. In December 2016, the California Attorney General’s Office launched its investigation.

A year later, the American Civil Liberties Union asked Becerra’s office to investigate both the Kern County Sheriff’s Office and the Bakersfield Police Department for what it called “patterns of excessive force — including shooting and beating to death unarmed individuals and deploying canines to attack and injure — as well as a practice of filing intimidating or retaliatory criminal charges against individuals they subject to excessive force.”

The ACLU also asked Becerra’s office to review cases involving “resisting” or “assault on police” that speak to the agencies’ improper use of criminal charges to prevent and defend against allegations of excessive force.

According to the agreement, in the next year the sheriff’s department will analyze its use of force data. That includes an assessment of how frequently the department sees criminal obstruction or resisting arrest cases referred to Internal Affairs.

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