Kern County Sheriff Donny Youngblood has been in office for 12 years.
His challenger in this June’s primary election, Chief Deputy Justin Fleeman, has made use of every minute of that tenure to fuel an all-out frontal assault on Youngblood.
He has leveled accusations that Youngblood has protected his friends from firing for ethical violations, misallocated department money to buy a helicopter and overseen a dramatic reduction in street deputies that has put county citizens at risk.
Fleeman’s supporters in the Kern County Detention Officers Association union have released a 12-year-old video that shows Youngblood talking about how it is better, financially, for an officer to kill a suspect rather than injure them.
But Youngblood has brushed aside the hits and painted Fleeman as a disloyal sheriff’s manager who is willing to burn down the department in order to beat him.
The pair have just under a month to close the deal with voters. Their head-to-head contest will conclude on June 5 with a single winner.
Cal State Bakersfield political science professor Mark Martinez said Youngblood’s characteristic bluntness and consistent cowboy character appeals to the citizens of Kern County.
“None of the bombs (Fleeman’s) throwing are secrets. Donny’s used to dealing with that stuff. He’s open about it. He wears his heart on his sleeve,” Martinez said. “He’s Yosemite Sam and nobody cares about it.”
And that is why Fleeman will have a hard time defeating the three-term incumbent sheriff, Martinez said.
But Fleeman hasn’t shied away from the fight, launching his campaign in early March. He came out swinging — challenging the integrity of Youngblood’s leadership and handling of the county’s finances.
Fleeman said the sheriff has declined to discipline deputies who slept with other deputy’s wives or fire deputies who dallied while on the clock — ethical violations that should cost them their jobs.
People’s personal lives off the job aren’t his business, Youngblood said.
“I don’t want to be the romance police for the sheriff’s department,” he said.
When deputies are engaging in extracurricular activities on the job, Youngblood said, they are put through a disciplinary process and his top staff bring him a recommendation.
He believes, he said, that people sometimes need a second chance.
“We hire from the human race,” Youngblood said.
And, striking back, he’s questioned Fleeman’s frequent discussions about details of the alleged dalliances.
The law protects public safety officers from having their personal information disclosed in public, Youngblood said. Airing their dirty laundry in a political campaign could expose Fleeman to misdemeanor criminal charges.
“I want people to know what’s going on inside the department. We’re not talking about people’s case in particular,” Fleeman responded. “I’m giving hypotheticals.”
Another line of criticism from Fleeman is that Youngblood prioritized payments for a Huey helicopter over keeping the Ridgecrest jail open and keeping deputies on the street.
The closure of the jail is forcing deputies to respond to Ridgecrest from the Kern River Valley, Fleeman said.
That has put more pressure on the Ridgecrest Police Department, which is now forced to drive arrestees to Mojave or Bakersfield to book them into jail, he said.
“I would have sold the helicopter,” Fleeman said.
Youngblood scoffs at the proposal.
The helicopter’s finance costs will be paid off this year, Youngblood said.
Selling it would have added a burst of one-time cash that would have done nothing to help the Sheriff’s Office with long-term ongoing costs, he said.
“At the end of the day you don’t have the money, the aircraft or the deputies,” he said.
Youngblood didn’t like closing the Ridgecrest Jail, he said. He knew he’d take a political hit.
But, when his managers brought him the idea, he knew it was the right thing to do.
“I had two choices. I could lay off deputies or close the jail,” Youngblood said.
In large part, the attacks against Youngblood, and Fleeman’s candidacy, can be tied to Kern County’s budget struggles. They have forced the Sheriff’s Office to accept flat or reduced budgets for nearly a decade.
Youngblood said his deputies haven’t seen a raise in nine years and are the lowest-paid deputies in the Central Valley.
They’re training here, he said, and then leaving for other jurisdictions like Fresno, where just agreeing to take a job as a deputy can earn them a $20,000 signing bonus.
Deputies are underpaid, spread thin and suffering from low morale, Fleeman said, and it's because Youngblood is an absentee sheriff who isn’t seen out in the various divisions of the Sheriff’s Office.
“Morale is very big,” Fleeman said. “You have to have good morale to keep the deputies we have. Money doesn’t buy morale.”
He acknowledges that the county has been in a financial crisis for most of the past decade and Youngblood doesn’t have control over the size of his budget.
The sheriff’s race leapt onto the national spotlight last month with the Detention Officers Association released an edited video from 2006 showing Youngblood talking about how it’s cheaper for an officer to kill a person rather than cause them permanent injury.
The video drew coverage and shock from across the country.
Youngblood said it was taken out of context in an attempt to damage his candidacy.
“I was talking about the importance of being professional,” Youngblood said.
An unjustified assault or shooting by a deputy can cost the county millions and he was telling detention deputies why it was important for them to be well-trained.
Youngblood said he may have used the wrong words to make the point.
But the video put out by the detention deputies union was edited to make his statements more shocking.
Fleeman said the idea that Youngblood expressed — that the families of people killed by deputies could be bought off with a few million dollars — was disturbing.
“People aren’t garbage,” he said.
Still, he doesn’t think Youngblood was trying to say that.
“I don’t believe he is encouraging anyone to shoot somebody,” he said. “Maybe (it was) a poor choice of words.”
Fleeman said he is moving on from repeated attacks against Youngblood.
“You can’t just rip somebody and keep ripping,” he said.
His campaign from here on will focused on talking about how he plans to run the department better, he said.
“People need to see where the sheriff’s department has gone in the past 12 years. We’ve given him 12 years to keep his promises,” Fleeman said.
Youngblood said Fleeman’s aggressive approach so far has betrayed the trust he placed in him when he repeatedly promoted Fleeman. And that calls into question Fleeman’s fitness for leadership, the sheriff said.
“Can you go into a meeting and trust that what you said will stay there?” Youngblood said.
And the attacks sting.
“I’m getting painted as a bad person by one of my own. That’s painful,” he said. “He’s not just attacking me. He’s attacking the whole organization.”
Fleeman said his job isn’t to sit quietly while he believes things in the Sheriff’s Office need to change.
“I am loyal to the people of Kern County,” Fleeman said. “My faith is in God, not Donny Youngblood.”