Night after night, recently, Michele Holiwell has been standing on street corners around town, sometimes with dozens of others, sometimes just a few others, demanding reform of local law enforcement and raising awareness of police brutality.
She says the protests are peaceful and are meant to be a call to action, to get locals involved in demanding change, as so many protesters have done around the nation in recent weeks. Holiwell and fellow protester Reginald Gardner are working to get an official Black Lives Matter chapter established in Bakersfield and hope to work toward changing the relationship between the Black community and police departments. While they have mainly been protesting in Bakersfield, they recently went to Frazier Park to stand with a small group of protesters there.
"Another thing I like to focus on, personally, is we have our own George Floyds here," Holiwell said. "All the police brutality and murders that have gone on."
They list the names of people who have died after being shot by Bakersfield police officers or Kern County sheriff's deputies in recent years. Among them, David Sal Silva, Francisco Serna and James De La Rosa.
All three were unarmed.
One day while Holiwell was protesting, De La Rosa's mother stopped by and gave Holiwell a pin with her deceased son's photo on it, Holiwell said.
Tensions between law enforcement and segments of the local community have simmered long before the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis prompted large protests around the nation and in downtown Bakersfield in late May. It's not just those who feel wronged by the police who have raised their voices. Local attorneys who represent those who accuse police of misconduct have expressed concerns over the years, and federal and state investigators have become involved.
Has there been change?
The consensus seems to be yes, but not nearly enough.
Bakersfield City Councilman Bob Smith, who was elected in 2012 and has seen three people hold the city’s title of police chief, thinks "we're still in the early stages" of making necessary reforms.
"But the first thing is to recognize there’s a problem and begin working on it," he said. "I think we’ve done that."
Complaints about racial profiling, excessive force and other misconduct in the Bakersfield Police Department and the Kern County Sheriff's Office stretch back decades.
Kathleen Faulkner, a local civil rights attorney who has represented clients in cases against the BPD and the KCSO for excessive force and violation of constitutional rights, said she kept records and a database over the years of complaints against officers and the people who were alleged victims. In the early 2000s, she turned them over to the U.S. Department of Justice, which opened an investigation of the BPD in 2003 that lasted 4½ years.
The Police Department was ultimately found not to have committed any constitutional violations, but early in the investigation, federal officials recommended some 20 changes the BPD needed to make.
"I think it improved the situation," Faulkner said. "(The DOJ) didn’t put down the BPD but they made several recommendations and changes."
"And (then-Police Chief Bill) Rector actually said it was an improved department after that. It was probably the first time anyone had ever challenged them," she said.
Then in 2015, The Guardian, a British newspaper, published a series calling out the BPD and the KCSO as the deadliest police forces in the United States on a per capita basis. Among its startling findings was that 13 people had been killed so far that year by law enforcement officers in Kern County, which then had a population of just under 875,000. During the same period, nine people were killed by the NYPD across the five counties of New York City, where almost 10 times as many people live and about 23 times as many sworn law enforcement officers patrol.
In 2016, outgoing California Attorney General Kamala Harris announced her office would open an investigation into the BPD and the KCSO that's ongoing today.
In 2017, the American Civil Liberties Union published a report hammering the two agencies for engaging in patterns and practices it said violate civil rights.
In its 24-page report, the ACLU of Southern California outlined scores of instances of alleged misuse of authority and alleged that both law enforcement agencies harbor a culture of excessive force. They pointed to reports of Kern County sheriff's deputies rewarding one another with “baby seal” prizes for “best clubbing,” and others who have slapped “We’ll kick your ass” decals on patrol cars or — in the case of K-9 units — “We’ll bite your ass” decals.
The ACLU blamed deficiencies in oversight and accountability structures that have allowed misconduct to go unchecked, “and in some cases, escalate.”
In between, a number of high-profile scandals rocked each department.
A pair of officers with both departments were convicted or pleaded guilty to stealing confiscated drugs and reselling them. Both departments also had their share of controversial use-of-force incidents.
In 2014, the Sheriff's Office came under fire for the death of David Sal Silva, a father of four who died after deputies tried to rouse him from sleeping on the sidewalk near Kern Medical. A struggle ensued and deputies wrestled with and then hog-tied Silva, and placed a spit mask on his face. Silva, who was unarmed but overweight and later found to have been on methamphetamine, died following the altercation. Sheriff Donny Youngblood took the unusual step of asking the FBI to investigate and the federal agency ultimately found deputies acted within guidelines, but the county later settled for more than $3 million with Silva's family in a civil case.
The Police Department then came under fire in 2017 for its handling of an encounter between two officers searching for a man with a machete and 19-year-old Tatyana Hargrove, who was riding her bicycle home on Ming Avenue. The officers mistook the 5-foot-2-inch Hargrove for the nearly 6-foot-tall suspect.
Hargrove later said an officer punched her in the face and threw her down where she was bitten by a K-9.
The officers' accounts differed, providing a less confrontational version of events.
The BPD eventually called the encounter a case of mistaken identity, while the Bakersfield chapter of the NAACP said it was racially motivated.
Then-Police Chief Lyle Martin apologized to Hargrove's family after the incident, saying the department would strive to do better. Hargrove sued but lost her case in federal court. She was arrested in 2019 and is scheduled to stand trial on felony charges this year that allege she spit on an officer's food she was preparing while working at a Rosedale McDonald's.
There have been numerous reforms and changes made within the Police Department and Sheriff's Office over the years.
Both agencies have deployed body-worn cameras. Cameras were installed at the Kern County jail and booking officers also must wear them. Random drug testing is now in place for sheriff's deputies and detention deputies.
Both agencies recently suspended the carotid artery hold, which has become an issue since the death of Floyd.
The BPD has started a principled policing course and new Chief Greg Terry said Friday that a new lieutenant position has been created to do "quality assurance" to ensure officers are conducting themselves according to policy, auditing video from body cameras and doing spot checks to ensure they're being used as required.
Sheriff Youngblood said a system has been implemented in his agency to flag "frequent fliers" — a reference to deputies who have had multiple complaints of the same nature filed against them.
However, on some of the major issues that reform advocates have pushed, there's been little progress.
For example, an external, independent body to review use-of-force and police shootings or a civilian oversight committee has been called for many times over the years.
The idea gained traction following the death of De La Rosa in 2014, said Joey Williams, the brother of Supervisor Leticia Perez and a youth pastor who now works statewide for criminal justice reform. At the time, Williams helped form Faith in Action Kern County, a group of local pastors and religious leaders who were trying to push for change at the Police Department.
De La Rosa was 22 when he was fatally shot by Bakersfield police following a high-speed chase in east Bakersfield. His death drew almost 200 protesters and mourners to a candlelight vigil the evening after the shooting.
According to previous reporting, officers tried to stop De La Rosa's Jeep Liberty after seeing it traveling erratically on Flower Street near the on-ramp of eastbound Highway 178. De La Rosa failed to yield, drove east on the freeway and crashed into a signal light pole on the east side of Mount Vernon Avenue after taking the off-ramp.
Police said he immediately got out of the Jeep and approached officers in a confrontational manner, ignoring officers' commands to stop. Police said they fired after De La Rosa reached toward his front waistband. He was later found to be unarmed. The officers were found to have acted within guidelines through an internal review.
"It seemed like a really great idea for folks not associated with KCSO and BPD to be investigating these cases," Williams said.
Faith in Action began to hold meetings with the BPD and researched polices at the department.
Another area that felt ripe for change was the policy whereby the position of police chief must be filled from within the department, with nominees vetted by a three-person panel, who Williams said at the time were three white men who worked in real estate. The group pushed for a new chief to be hired from outside the department.
Then, in 2015, the Guardian story was published and Williams said it seemed that the police felt his organization was somehow involved in an effort to smear them.
After that, "we were persona non grata," Williams said. The community meetings stopped.
The topic of a civilian review committee came up recently when Sheriff Youngblood and Chief Terry spoke at separate virtual meetings following Floyd's death organized by Arleana Waller, founder of the local MLK commUNITY Initiative. Terry and Youngblood said it wasn't possible under current laws.
Attendees were told the state’s current peace officer rights don't allow that type of committee to be in place and Youngblood said he wasn’t in favor of a citizens' review board because people who aren't in law enforcement wouldn't understand how deputies do their jobs.
When efforts to work with the Police Department fizzled, Williams said he shifted his efforts toward working at the state level, where a number of law enforcement reforms have been passed in recent years. Martin was chosen as police chief and sworn into office in January 2016.
Martin retired at the end of 2019 and Terry was selected to succeed him.
"I believe that things have changed in Bakersfield. I’m not saying it’s happened because of BPD but I think the primary factors are the justice families impacted by police violence," Williams said, referring to the families of people like De La Rosa and Silva.
"There have been less shootings between 2015 and now, and I believe the work the families and organizers and leaders have done has saved lives," Williams said.
City Councilman Andrae Gonzales, who was sworn in alongside former Police Chief Martin in 2016, said he wants to see more benchmarking of police policies, looking to other agencies and making sure the BPD's practices are in line with best practices. But Gonzales also thinks the department deserves credit for the changes that it's made, though he admits they have not have been well-publicized.
"The reality is the department has been making an effort. I’ve seen it firsthand," he said. "We can debate if efforts have gone far enough and if we still have further to go ... I think there’s still room for us to grow. I think the chief will say there’s room for improvement as well."
Youngblood, who was elected to head up the county's law enforcement agency in 2006, is in a different position than Bakersfield's police chief. As a directly elected official, he doesn't necessarily answer to a higher body. Still, he said Friday that he's implemented change over the years and is trying to be responsive to the conversation over reforms.
For example, though he believes the carotid artery hold has its place in subduing especially large individuals who may be on drugs, he agreed to suspend it when it recently became a topic of concern.
"My whole stance is we’re not going to agree on everything but we can agree we want to be better and be responsive to our community," Youngblood said Friday.
But he also noted, “There is a group of people out there that will come for more reforms no matter what we do. What we have to do is the right thing, what we believe is the right thing."
A CULTURE OF US VS. THEM
Attorney Daniel Rodriguez has practiced law in Bakersfield for 40 years, both as a criminal defense attorney and in civil cases, which he has done solely for the past eight years. He's represented numerous clients in excessive force cases against the BPD and the KCSO and noted that while the internal reviews of shootings and excessive force cases nearly always justify an officer's actions, juries who hear the evidence in civil courts often disagree.
"As it stands now we have the fox guarding the hen house. It’s important to build trust with the community and one way to build trust is to say we’re going to have a review board including people outside the law enforcement agency," he said.
Rodriguez said he didn't think much had changed in recent years within the Police Department and the Sheriff's Office. He said that whether suing local police or other departments in Los Angeles, Tulare or Ventura, he's noticed a common culture pervading the police forces.
"It’s a culture of us against them. When there is a bad cop, the rest of the officers don’t speak up," Rodriguez said. "They’re afraid of retaliation, of being ostracized, of not getting backup when they call for it. They’re afraid of being snitches."
Local law firm Chain Cohn Stiles wrote on its website recently about the need for more police reforms and mentioned its clients who suffered alleged police abuses. The website listed a number of high-profile settlements it's reached over the years — a $3.4 million settlement with Kern County for Silva's family; a $6 million settlement with the county for the family of James Moore, who died after he was beaten in a jail facility; and a settlement with the county for $8.8 million for the deaths of two pedestrians killed in Oildale when they were struck by a sheriff's deputy driving his patrol vehicle at more than 80 mph in a 45-mph zone without activating emergency lights or sirens.
Rodriguez, however, sounded hopeful when talking about the BPD's new chief, Terry, and his ability to usher in more substantive change.
Ahead of the first night of local protests over Floyd's death on May 29, Terry released a statement condemning the Minneapolis police officers' actions.
“The behaviors of these officers does not meet my expectations of any police officer in our country. Police officers have a legal, moral, and ethical obligation to use only proper methods of arrest,” Terry wrote.
Additionally, Terry said that after seeing the video of Floyd’s killing, he made sure it was made clear to all BPD officers that it was unacceptable.
"I hope his attitude is genuine," Rodriguez said, "and that it filters into the rank and file."
This story was updated to reflect that virtual community meetings with BPD Chief Greg Terry and Kern County Sheriff Donny Youngblood were organized by Arleana Waller, founder of the local MLK CommUNITY Initiative and that it was 2016 when BPD Chief Lyle Martin and Councilman Andrae Gonzales were sworn in.