Department of Justice settles with Kern County Sheriff’s Office over civil rights violations, Chain | Cohn | Clark cases
A settlement has been reached between the California Department of Justice and local law enforcement departments after an investigation into civil rights violations and excessive force allegations, some of which stem from Chain | Cohn | Clark cases.
The settlement agreement requires the Kern County Sheriff’s Office to enact an extensive list of reforms over the next five years aimed at ensuring the department protects citizens’ constitutional rights and treats individuals with respect and dignity, according to The Bakersfield Californian reports. To see the list, please scroll to the bottom.
The four-year investigation determined KCSO had engaged in a pattern of constitutional violations involving improper use of force, unreasonable searches and seizures and inadequate management. The Department of Justice also alleged the Sheriff’s Department violated state law in its use of deadly force and its handling of civilian complaints. The settlement requires more than a dozen changes to the Sheriff’s Office over the next five years, with an independent monitor to ensure those changes take place.
While the investigation shined yet another light on the ongoing civil rights violations by local law enforcement, it’s hard to imagine the settlement will lead to real change, Chain | Cohn | Clark managing partner David Cohn told media. The law firm has filed numerous wrongful death, excessive force, and civil rights lawsuits against local law enforcement department resulting in tens of millions of dollars in damages for clients.
“I don’t think it means anything,” Cohn told The Bakersfield Californian. “I don’t think it’s going to have any meaningful impact with respect to how the Kern County Sheriff’s Department handles excessive force issues within the department … Do you see any of the political leaders, do you see any of the supervisors saying to the sheriff, ‘we want meaningful reform, we are tired of paying out on these claims? It’s business as usual. Nothing is going to change.”
The local office of the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation also commented as follows: “This is not going to be an overnight, ‘we’ve entered into this consent decree and now all of a sudden things are going to be better in the next year or two.’ There is going to be this long road ahead to ensure we are going to see the change we want to see.”
More than five years The Guardian — a renowned British national daily newspaper that also covers issues in the United States — unveiled its five-part series that examined the use of deadly force, rough justice, sexual misconduct cases and other issues involving “America’s deadliest police” of Kern County. Among the cases highlighted were many of those involving wrongful death, police misconduct, sexual misconduct and civil rights cases over the years prior handled by the attorneys at Chain | Cohn | Clark.
“Police in Kern County, California, have killed more people per capita than in any other American county in 2015,” according to The Guardian’s report. “The Guardian examines how, with little oversight, officers here became the country’s most lethal.”
The Guardian’s series was part of a project called The Counted, highlighting the number of people killed by police and other law enforcement agencies in the United States throughout 2015, “to monitor their demographics and to tell the stories of how they died.” Why was this necessary? According to The Guardian, the U.S. government had no comprehensive record of the number of people killed by law enforcement at the time, and still doesn’t. And this lack of basic data has been glaring amid the protests, riots and worldwide debate set in motion by fatal police shootings.
Why focus on Kern County? The series tackled the issue of how police officers in Kern County are reportedly responsible for killing more local residents per capita than in any other county in the country — about 1.5 people per 100,000 residents.
Among the cases highlighted by the publication included:
- David Sal Silva, who was killed on the night of May 7, 2013. Silva was asleep in front of a home in east Bakersfield, across from Kern Medical Center when several law enforcement officers arrived on scene and proceeded to use unreasonable and excessive force in striking Silva with batons several times all over his body, while he screamed for his life and repeatedly begged the officers to stop. After being repeatedly beaten, bitten and hog-tied, Silva stopped breathing. Shortly after midnight, Silva was taken to Kern Medical Center, where he was pronounced dead. Chain | Cohn | Clark filed a civil rights lawsuit in connection with the wrongful death of David Silva. On May 4, 2016, a settlement was reached for $3.4 million.
- David Garcia, who was shot to death in January 2015 by Kern County Sheriff’s deputies while leaving his house unarmed. Deputies were called to the house to assist on a suicide attempt call. A settlement was reached in 2018.
- James Moore was beaten to death by several deputies from the Kern County Sheriff’s Department while housed in central receiving downtown Bakersfield jail. On behalf of his family, Chain | Cohn | Clark filed suit. Three deputies were prosecuted by the Kern County District Attorney’s Office for their roles in James’ death. The case settled for $6 million.
- The series also highlighted three deputy-involved fatal crashes. In all three, Chain | Cohn | Clark has filed claims and lawsuits on behalf of their families. Ultimately, the lawsuits led to reformed driving practices on the part of KCSO deputies. Those cases include:
- Daniel Hiler and Chrystal Jolley, who were killed in December 2011, when Kern County sheriff’s deputy John Swearengin struck and killed them as they pushed a motorcycle across Norris Road. Swearengin was traveling at more than 80 mph in a 45-mph zone, without activating his emergency lights or siren. The case settled in March for $8.8 million.
- Nancy Garrett, who was killed in September 2014 in Oildale when a Kern County Sheriff’s Office patrol car operated by Deputy Nicholas Clerico struck and killed her. The California Highway Patrol’s Multidisciplinary Accident Investigation Team (MAIT) found Deputy Clerico at fault in the crash, and the CHP report recommended that a vehicular manslaughter charge be filed against the deputy.
- Larry Maharrey, who was killed when Kern County Sheriff’s Deputy Marvin Gomez abruptly made a left turn against a red light onto Airport Drive in Oildale directly into Maharrey’s motorcycle. Maharrey was unable to avoid the collision with Deputy Gomez’s patrol vehicle, and died as a result of the crash. The family, represented by Chain | Cohn | Clark, and County of Kern settled the lawsuit for $3.8 million.
Then in 2016, the California Attorney General’s Office and the FBI launched investigations into Kern County Sheriff’s Office and the Bakersfield Police Department.
But this wasn’t the first time a Bakersfield police department had been investigated for an alleged pattern of excessive force. In 2003, the U.S. Department of Justice launched what would become a four-and-a-half year investigation after receiving numerous complaints of deadly and non-deadly excessive force and discriminatory policing methods. In April 2004, that department suggested policy changes in a 19-page letter to the department and Bakersfield Police Department began making those changes including some in its use-of-force and officer-involved shootings policies. In 2008, the federal department reviewed those changes and announced the BPD hadn’t stepped over any constitutional lines.
Still, claims and lawsuits against local law enforcement alleging misconduct, civil rights violations, and police brutality persist.
A list of reforms required under a settlement agreement between the California Department of Justice and the Kern County Sheriff’s Office are as follows:
- Revise use of force policies to prohibit maneuvers that have a substantial risk of causing suffocation and require deputies to intervene when excessive use of force is taking place.
- Modify canine policies and training from “find and bite” to “find and bark” and limit off-leash canine deployment only for armed suspects or those wanted for a serious felony.
- Inform public about all officer-involved shootings and deaths in custody.
- Require supervisors to investigate all uses of force.
- Improve use of force training to include de-escalation techniques and bias.
- Meet with community advisory panel to receive input.
- Require deputies to state reason for an investigatory stop or detention as soon as possible.
- Require deputies to state a valid reason under the law for a consent search and secure a supervisor’s approval for any search of a home.
- Provide dispatchers with crisis intervention training and establish deputies who are preferred responders to individuals in a mental health crisis.
- Ensure timely access to police services to all individuals regardless of ability to speak English.
- Develop a recruitment plan for attracting workforce that reflects diversity in Kern County.
- Broaden efforts to participate in community engagement efforts.
- Conduct a biennial community survey measuring public satisfaction with policing.
- Establish a clear definition for a civilian complaint.
If you or someone you know is injured by law enforcement, injured in an accident at the fault of someone else, or injured on the job no matter whose fault it is, contact the Bakersfield injury lawyers by calling (661) 323-4000.
- Kern County, KCSO settle with state to improve law enforcement practices after DOJ investigation (KGET-17, NBC – Dec. 22, 2020)
- Attorney General announces settlement to reform wide-range of practices at KCSO (23ABC News – Dec. 22, 2020)
- Kern County Sheriff’s Office enters into ‘major settlement’ with Department of Justice following civil rights investigation (The Bakersfield Californian – Dec. 23, 2020)
- Attorney General Becerra announces settlement to reform practices at KCSO (KBAK/KBFX – Dec. 22, 2020)
- Settlement between KCSO and Justice Department draws mixed reactions (The Bakersfield Californian – Dec. 23, 2020)
- Becerra reaches settlement with Kern County sheriff, resolving four-year civil rights probe (Los Angeles Times – Dec. 22, 2020)
THE GUARDIAN SERIES