A civil rights attorney representing families of victims gunned down by Bakersfield police officers, including at least one whose case was investigated by disgraced detective Damacio Diaz, is demanding a federal takeover of the department.
The Bakersfield Police Department, beleaguered by accusations of widespread corruption that have been playing out in federal court, was in the news most recently when Diaz was sentenced to five years in prison.
The situation has reached a point of critical mass, Ben Meiselas, an attorney with Geragos & Geragos, said Monday morning at a press conference where he was flanked by family members of people killed by BPD officers under what he called “baffling” circumstances.
“What we are calling for is the Department of Justice to take over the Bakersfield Police Department,” Meiselas said. “The situation has reached a catastrophic and critical mass. The Bakersfield Police Department has not taken its obligations seriously, and if we continue down this path — we’re already in catastrophe mode — where do we go next?”
BPD officials declined to comment until Oct. 24, after Diaz’s former partner, Patrick Mara, is sentenced, but Chief Greg Williamson said during a May press conference that his department has taken all allegations seriously. Diaz, he said, didn’t come forward with additional allegations of widespread corruption within the department until he was facing a $10 million fine and prison time.
Meiselas’ call for action comes after courtroom revelations, including “white papers” Diaz submitted with pre-sentencing documents filed in U.S. District Court, suggested broader problems. Those papers alleged what Diaz called “common” violations by fellow cops, including drinking on the job, paying informants under the table with department money and seizing narcotics without informing supervisors.
“When you have officers drinking on operations, you begin to understand how you get to be the deadliest police force in the nation,” Meiselas said, referencing reports from last year that Kern County ranked No. 1 nationwide for the most officer-involved shootings in the U.S. He added that Diaz’s long-running masquerade as a police officer while dealing drugs points to how officers justify shooting to kill without fear of repercussion.
Especially troubling, Meiselas said, are comments made by Bakersfield City Manager Alan Tandy last week suggesting that the corruption at BPD is an isolated incident involving Diaz and Mara, who is scheduled to be sentenced in the coming weeks.
“We cleaned up our mess,” Tandy told KGET last week.
But Meiselas said that’s not true, pointing to several deaths of unarmed individuals that BPD at the time labeled as “isolated incidents.” Once Diaz’s white paper revelations surfaced, the pattern of isolated incidences became clear, Meiselas said.
“All of what we’ve heard is consistent with the mysteries and the unusual ... and horrific circumstances surrounding the deaths of unarmed individuals,” Meiselas said.
The U.S. Attorney’s office praised Williamson in a June press release, however, for the department’s cooperation with its office “in a sincere effort to root out corruption.” Acting U.S. Attorney Phillip Talbert went on to say that insofar as the DOJ had investigated, it had not found more wrongdoing within the department.
“The allegation recently made to the media that there is widespread corruption within BPD is one that our investigation has not substantiated,” Talbert said.
If Meiselas and the victims’ families pleas are answered, a DOJ supervisor would oversee the department to ensure officers are complying with federal guidelines.
Meiselas said the DOJ would also be making a statement in the coming weeks after the sentencing of Mara, who in June pleaded guilty to conspiracy to distribute and possess with the intent to distribute methamphetamine.
Jorge Ramirez, father of a slain police informant contracted by Diaz, but kept off the books, said that he wants “change and honesty” from the department.
“That change should come from a higher source,” Ramirez said. “We all want change. Not just change for our families that are here today, but others that can become victims of this brutality going on in this town. This fight will continue.”
Ramirez blames the death of his son, Jorge Ramirez Jr., on Diaz’s shoddy police work. Diaz never told his superiors that Ramirez Jr. was an informant — and Ramirez Jr. was subsequently shot to death during a sting operation that, in a twist of irony, he helped set up for police.
Other families of victims attending the press conference had no connection to Diaz — he was not an investigator or involved in the cases. But family members said that doesn’t matter.
If Diaz was able to operate as a crooked cop for years, peddling dope back to his community under cover of a badge, then what other corruption exists within the ranks, asked Jesse Rodriguez, whose cousin died at the hands of BPD officers during a high-speed pursuit.
“They have the same chief,” Rodriguez said, referencing Williamson, who is retiring at the end of this year. “He’s the head of the snake.”