Kern County Sheriff must reform police practices under use-of-force settlement

The state Department of Justice and the Kern County Sheriff's Office have reached a legal settlement stemming from a use-of-force lawsuit, Attorney General Xavier Becerra announced on Tuesday. 

"This is a good outcome," Becerra said at a virtual news conference. "This is a critical step in advancing trust." 

The state Department of Justice sued the sheriff's office alleging 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.

Becerra has specifically called out the sheriff's department in June, citing one study that found it had the highest kill rate in the United States among police departments. 

Even before that, then-Attorney General Kamala D. Harris, soon to be vice president, opened 2016 investigations into the Kern County Sheriff’s Office looking at whether deputies used of excessive force and practiced other serious misconduct. 

The investigation also identified other violations, Becerra's office stated, 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.

"The sheriff took our concerns seriously," Becerra said. And the settlement, he said, is "aimed at enhancing accountability and transparency." 

The settlement calls for a 5-year-plan with oversight by an independent monitor for best practices so that "use of force is not a routine form of policing," he added. 

Sheriff Donny Youngblood said he believed in everything stated in the stipulated judgment, which means his department can avert going to trial.

Because of the legal agreement, the Board of Supervisors has agreed to spend money on 42 new positions, better supervision and supplying every deputy with a body-worn camera. 

"We're going to be a better organization," Youngblood said. 

Some of the remedies include:

  • Review and revise use-of-force policies that prohibit the use of maneuvers that create a substantial risk of positional asphyxia 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 to make sure the dogs are deployed in a manner consistent with "find and bark" rather than "find and bite." 
  • Strengthen use-of-force reporting, improve use-of-force training and analyze use-of-force data. 
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Conduct a biennial community survey.
  • Establish a clear definition of what constitutes a civilian complaint.

Tuesday's announcement might be Becerra's last as state Attorney General. 

President-elect Joe Biden picked him to be his health secretary, putting a supporter of the Affordable Care Act in a leading role to oversee his administration's coronavirus response.

No one has yet been named for the new California AG's spot. 

This story was reported from Oakland, Calif.