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UPDATED: Kern County Sheriff's Office enters into 'major settlement' with Department of Justice following civil rights investigation

After a four-year investigation, the California Department of Justice has entered into a “major settlement” with the Kern County Sheriff’s Office, forcing changes to the department’s practices.

Prompted by citizen complaints and media reports of excessive use of force by KCSO deputies, the settlement attempts to correct the issues identified by Justice Department officials while avoiding a potentially costly and protracted legal battle.

In a complaint filed in Kern County Superior Court on Tuesday, the DOJ said the Sheriff’s Office engaged in a pattern of conduct that deprived citizens of their constitutional rights and violated the law in numerous categories. However, as part of the settlement, KCSO and the county of Kern were allowed to officially deny the allegations.

During a joint press conference Tuesday, Sheriff Donny Youngblood adamantly opposed the notion his department was guilty of the grievances included in the Justice Department’s complaint.

“I do not believe that the men and women in this organization have ever violated constitutional rights, have ever used excessive force that we didn’t deal with punitively when we found (it),” he said. “That just doesn’t happen in our organization.”

Attorney General Xavier Becerra positioned the settlement as a productive step in the right direction, which allows the Justice Department to enact reforms with the cooperation of KCSO.

“The settlement with the Sheriff’s Office is a critical step in advancing trust and partnership in Kern County,” he said, “and it builds on the concrete steps that the Sheriff’s Office has taken to build law enforcement practices and to build long lasting trust with the community it serves.”

Constitutional violations included in the Justice Department’s complaint include unreasonable uses of force, especially with canines; unreasonable stops, searches, arrests and seizures; and failure to appropriately supervise officers.

The DOJ also alleged the Sheriff’s Office violated the law in the use of deadly force against individuals with mental health disabilities, as well as failing to maintain a program to investigate civilian complaints. Failing to provide equal employment opportunities for employees and applicants, and a lack of a community policing program were also listed as law violations in the complaint.

By settling, KCSO has consented to enact more than a dozen reforms over a five-year period, which will be overseen by an independent monitor that both parties will select within 15 days of the agreement going into effect.

Per the terms of the agreement, the county will bear the cost of the monitor.

“We realized that going forward we had two choices: We could go to court and let a jury and a judge decide whether we did anything right, wrong or indifferent. Or we could go to the table with the Department of Justice and make our organization better than what it was before,” Youngblood said. “So what we chose to do was to partner with the Department of Justice to make us the best agency that we could be. And I think that’s where we wound up.”

Failure to comply with the terms of the agreement would mean the Justice Department would bring the matter before a Kern County judge, potentially forcing reforms through a court order.

Kern County Supervisor Leticia Perez, who serves as chairwoman of the board, spoke positively of the settlement and the “tone of civility” around the issue.

“Because, as you know, hearts and minds are the most important part of change and progress as our communities continue to change,” she said. “This is a good example for other agencies around the state and other leaders that are struggling to talk about public safety, struggling to build relationships with law enforcement partners.”

According to Youngblood, the Sheriff’s Office has been working on reforms since the DOJ’s investigation began in 2016. He claimed the department was already 70 percent done with changes required by the agreement.

For Becerra, who has been selected by President-elect Joe Biden to serve as the secretary of Health and Human Services, the settlement could be one of his last acts as California's attorney general.

“I believe that this settlement will help assure continued improvements in law enforcement practices in Kern County and its jails,” he said. “Now it’s time to get the work done and underway.”

The DOJ also launched a similar investigation into the Bakersfield Police Department. On Tuesday, Becerra said that investigation was still ongoing, and would not comment further.

You can reach Sam Morgen at 661-395-7415. You may also follow him on Twitter @smorgenTBC.