Kern County, KCSO settle with state to improve law enforcement practices after DOJ investigation

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SACRAMENTO, Calif. (KGET) – California Attorney General Xavier Becerra announced today a major settlement aimed at reforming practices at the Kern County Sheriff’s Office.

The settlement comes after an investigation by the California Department of Justice into Kern County’s law enforcement practices, sparked by a 2015 article from The Guardian naming Kern County as the deadliest region in the nation in police killings.

As a result of the agreement, the state said the county and KCSO will take a set of corrective actions, to be overseen by an independent monitor, aimed at promoting public safety, increasing transparency and accountability and enhancing KCSO’s relationship with the community.

“Today’s settlement with the Sheriff’s Office is a critical step in helping rebuild trust and partnership in Kern County,” Becerra said. “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. We look forward to working with Sheriff Youngblood and Kern County’s civic leaders to make today’s settlement a success.”

The DOJ’s investigation, which began in 2016, addressed allegations of unlawful policing practices in Kern County regarding use of unreasonable force, unreasonable stops, searches and seizures and a failure to exercise appropriate management and supervision of deputies both on patrol and in the county’s jails. 

The state said the investigation also identified other violations, including failing to adequately maintain a meaningful program for the receipt and investigation of civilian complaints, failing to provide meaningful access to those with limited English proficiency and failing to have a comprehensive community policing program. 

To address these concerns and the investigation’s findings, DOJ and KCSO have agreed to establish a five-year plan of corrective actions, including to:

  • Review and revise use-of-force policies and principles to, among other things, prohibit the use of maneuvers that create a substantial risk of positional asphyxia, emphasize that the use of force is not a routine part of policing, and make it an affirmative duty for deputies to intervene, when in a position to do so, against unnecessary or excessive force by another deputy
  • Modify canine-related policies and training, working to ensure canines are deployed in a manner consistent with “find and bark” rather than “find and bite” approaches and limiting off-leash canine deployments only to instances in which a suspect is wanted for a serious felony or is reasonably suspected to be armed based on individualized information
  • Strengthen use-of-force reporting, developing a policy and process to inform the public about all officer-involved shootings, deaths in custody, or other significant matters
  • Require supervisory investigations for all reportable uses of force, including requirements for supervisors to respond to the scene and document findings in a “Supervisor’s Report on Use of Force”
  • Improve use-of-force training, working with the independent monitor to incorporate training on, among other things, de-escalation techniques, principles of procedural justice, and how bias can impact threat assessments
  • Analyze use-of-force data, meeting with a community advisory panel to receive input into policies and procedures from community representatives from various, diverse stakeholder groups
  • Reiterate that investigatory stops or detentions may only occur where there is reasonable suspicion of a crime, requiring deputies during such encounters to state the reason for an investigatory stop or detention as soon as practicable;
  • Require deputies be able to articulate a valid reason under law to conduct a consent search, securing supervisory approval before conducting any such searches of a home
  • Provide all dispatchers and their supervisors with crisis intervention training, as well as establishing a preference for deputies who are specifically trained in dealing with individuals in mental health crisis or suffering from a mental health disability to respond to such calls for assistance
  • Ensure timely and meaningful access to police services to all members of the Kern County community, including incarcerated individuals, regardless of their ability to speak, read, write, or understand English
  • Develop a written recruitment plan, including clear goals, objectives, and action steps for attracting and retaining a quality workforce that reflects the diversity of the Kern County community
  • Broaden efforts to actively participate in community engagement efforts, including participating in local community meetings and working with the community on the development of diversion programs
  • Conduct a biennial community survey, seeking, in part, to measure public satisfaction with policing, attitudes among personnel in the sheriff’s office, and the quality of deputy-citizen encounters
  • Establish a clear definition of what constitutes a civilian complaint, including non-traditional sources of complaints such as online video posts by community members depicting apparent deputy misconduct.

“I want to thank the Attorney General for his partnership with Kern County and especially thank my Sheriff for the spirit of cooperation and transparency that has guided this process,” said Kern County Supervisor Chair Leticia Perez. “Our public safety partners and community members all desire to live in safe and healthy neighborhoods. My hope is that we all join this endeavor by building the future together, as one community.”

A copy of the settlement with the County of Kern and KCSO can be found here. A copy of the complaint is available here.

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