The Kern County Sheriff’s Office has decided to shutter its gang unit, the department announced on Wednesday.
Sheriff Donny Youngblood said the decision stemmed from the fact the department only has three people in the unit and that they have had difficulty recruiting personnel given the department’s financial constraints.
“It’s unavoidable. It is what it is,” Youngblood said. “We’re doing the best we can with what we’ve got.”
The three deputies are already in the process of being reassigned to other units, he said.
Two of them will be transitioned to the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Violent Crime Unit and the other will be transferred to the California Multi-Jurisdictional Methamphetamine Enforcement Team, Youngblood said.
Despite the closure of the unit, Youngblood said KCSO will still concentrate on gangs and will assign deputies to deal with those issues when the need arises.
“We’re not going to turn our backs on gang violence, but there will not be a formalized, dedicated gang unit,” Youngblood said.
There are more than 200 active gangs in Kern County, responsible for thousands of crimes every year, according to the KCSO website. The majority of the county’s homicides are connected to gang activity, according to the District Attorney’s Office.
Prior to its closure, half of the positions in the gang unit were already vacant due to budget limitations. To fully staff the unit, Youngblood said it would take more than 13 deputies.
County Chief Administrative Officer Ryan Alsop acknowledged the closure in a statement on Wednesday.
"The sheriff's decision to reassign three deputies to other units is his to make, and is unrelated to any action taken by the Board of Supervisors," he said. "After speaking with the Sheriff today, I've confirmed that this is a budget-neutral staffing change addressing other needs he has within his operations."
Kern County District Attorney Cynthia Zimmer also responded to the announcement.
“The gang unit of the Kern County Sheriff’s (Office) has played a valued role in the prosecution of gang-related crimes. It is unfortunate that limitations of law enforcement resources prevent this unit from remaining operational,” she said.
Kern Law Enforcement Association President Richard Anderson said the association is supportive of Youngblood's decision.
“I’m not happy about it, but I 100 percent support the sheriff’s decision,” he said. “I don’t always see eye-to-eye with him, but I know he’s done everything he can. We can’t go on pretending we’re not in a crisis.”
Anderson, who is a metro patrol sergeant for the Sheriff’s Office, said the department has already lost more than 30 deputies to other agencies offering better pay, and he knows of 10 people who are planning to leave the department within the next six months.
The Sheriff’s Office currently employs more than 500 people, Anderson said.
The county Board of Supervisors voted to increase entry-level sheriff's deputy pay by nearly 19 percent this past March in an attempt to stop deputies from leaving, bumping up pay from $45,000 to around $53,000 annually in minimum base salary.
However, that still is lower than other comparable agencies, including the Bakersfield Police Department, where an entry-level officer earns around $58,000 a year. Despite the board’s efforts, Anderson said the Sheriff’s Office still has difficulty recruiting and retaining employees.
“We’ve been losing more than we’re gaining every year,” he said. “We’re getting to the point where we have to start shutting units down. If this (closure) doesn’t shake things up, I don’t know what will.”
Youngblood acknowledged that the Sheriff’s Office’s other special units could be eliminated in the future if more action isn’t taken to reverse course.
“We’re getting smaller and smaller,” he said. “This is the beginning of more to come for our specialized units. If things continue the way they are, I don’t see it changing.”