Bakersfield Police Department Officer David Nelson’s death Friday morning, as he drove his patrol car in pursuit of a fleeing vehicle, triggered an outpouring of sadness from across Bakersfield.
People flocked to a vigil downtown and swapped out their profile pictures on social media sites for images of a BPD badge covered by a black stripe.
“My heart is broken today,” Chaplain Arin Resnicke said at the vigil.
Nelson, 26, a two-year veteran of the department, was on a routine patrol early Friday morning when he made what he thought was a routine traffic stop.
Police Sgt. Joe Grubbs said Nelson radioed in the stop, in the area of Flower and Haley street, at 2:37 a.m. Friday.
A short time later Nelson, sounding winded, got back on the radio to tell dispatchers the unlicensed silver Hyundai he’d stopped was fleeing north on Haley Street and he was in pursuit.
Nelson’s chase proceeded north on Haley over Highway 178 and along the western edge of Bakersfield College until Nelson reported the suspect vehicle had turned east on Panorama Drive, Grubbs said.
A short time later the police department lost radio contact with Nelson.
Police units, responding to the pursuit, arrived at Panorama and Mt. Vernon Avenue at around 2:40 a.m. to find Nelson’s patrol vehicle crushed beside a block wall on the northeast corner of the intersection.
The patrol car’s engine block caught fire, Grubbs reported, but officers pulled Nelson from the vehicle before the fire burned through into the passenger compartment.
Nelson was rushed to Kern Medical Center where he died at around 3:05 a.m., Grubbs reported.
At noon on Friday, as California Highway Patrol officers investigated the accident and Bakersfield police searched for the silver Hyundai and its driver, more than 100 law enforcement workers, students and local community members attended a vigil for Nelson at Bakersfield Police Department headquarters on Truxtun Avenue.
Resnicke knelt in prayer for Nelson on a strip of sidewalk amid the large cluster of mourners.
Resnicke said, regardless of how others feel, police officers are the people who put on uniforms each day “to protect us.”
Daniela Hernandez and Dennis Brooks brought their three boys to the vigil, where the oldest two, along with Hernandez, held signs that read: “Blue Lives Matter,” “United We Stand” and “Police Lives Matter.”
Hernandez said she wants to teach her boys to respect, not fear, police.
“Not everyone’s going to run from them,” she said. “We want to stand with them.”
Nelson is the eighth Bakersfield Police officer who has died in the line of duty during the department’s history but the first officer lost in more than 31 years. The last officer to die was Officer William L. Sikola, who died in July 1983 on Highway 99 when he lost control of his motorcycle while assisting on a call.
“I am deeply saddened at the tragic accident this morning that claimed the life of a Bakersfield Police officer during a vehicle pursuit,” said Mayor Harvey Hall in an official statement. “As a city we mourn with the victim’s family, and with the local law enforcement community.”
Amber Rodrigues attended the vigil in support of Nelson’s family.
Rodrigues, 33, she was just a year old when Sikola, her father, died in the line of duty.
“I know how hard this is,” she said.
Nelson’s body was escorted by a BPD Honor Guard and CHP officials to his family in Burbank.
Resnicke started a collection of donations at the vigil for the Nelson family. He gave the first $30. Bakersfield City Councilman Terry Maxwell handed off $100 for his grandson to add to the pool.
He told the crowd in an unplanned speech he was in Monterey with his wife and two grandchildren when he heard about Nelson’s death.
“We dedicated ourselves to being here today,” Maxwell said.
He said Nelson’s death is a reminder of his dedication and that of many police officers.
“It reminds us that their service sometimes doesn’t end at the end of the day. It ends at the end of their life,” Maxwell said.
Gov. Jerry Brown said in a statement Capitol flags will be flown at half-staff in Nelson’s honor. He and his wife, Anne Gust Brown, released a statement Friday afternoon.
“Anne and I extend our deepest condolences to Officer Nelson’s family, friends and colleagues as they mourn this tragic loss,” Gov. Brown said. “We join all Californians in honoring his dedication and service to the people of Bakersfield.”
Investigators are searching for more information about Hyundai Nelson was pursuing at the time of the crash and ask anyone with information about the vehicle or its occupants to call (661) 852-7800. Members of the public who wish to share their condolences with Nelson’s family can call (661) 852-7021.
The Secret Witness Program is offering a reward of up to $5,000 and an additional $5,000 from a private donation for information leading to the arrest and filing of a complaint against the suspect or suspects who were involved in the pursuit that ultimately led to the collision that cost Nelson his life.