Officer-involved shootings in Bakersfield have hit communities of color the hardest, raising some question about whether city policing has been evenhanded in its enforcement.
Of the 68 people involved in officer-involved shootings over the last decade, 81 percent have been people of color, according to an analysis of Bakersfield Police Department records by The Californian.
Latinos in Bakersfield are more than twice as likely than whites to be caught up in an officer-involved shooting by the BPD, while blacks are nearly four times as likely, the analysis shows.
The pattern essentially repeats itself for the 33 BPD shootings ending in the death of a civilian.
“It doesn’t surprise me in the slightest,” said Lori Pesante, a volunteer with a local advocacy group, Criminal Justice Reform Coalition, and an adjunct professor of criminal justice at Bakersfield College. “There’s no way around that when you look at the way the numbers break down in exactly the same pattern all over the United States. It’s not just here.”
Compared to the nation as a whole, Bakersfield has a slightly greater disparity among whites and other races when it comes to officer-involved shootings.
In the U.S. in 2017, blacks were about 2.5 times as likely to be killed by law enforcement, while Latinos had similar rates as whites, a Californian analysis of national crime data compiled by The Washington Post showed.
The issue has confounded experts, who caution there are no easy answers.
Pesante suggested that city segregation and inequity issues play a part.
"It’s such a complicated problem that it has to be attacked on multiple fronts," she said.
The BPD maintains that it has little control over which citizens end up becoming involved in officer-involved shootings.
Officers respond to calls for service regardless of race, said BPD spokesman Nathan McCauley
“We don’t go to extra calls because of the race of the person involved and we don’t go to less calls because of the race of the person involved. We go to the calls that we’re sent to,” he said. “We address the issues that are seen and brought to us. We’re not starting the issue.”
BPD officers participate in implicit-bias training during the police academy and at least once a year after they enter active duty, McCauley said.
“These are always topics that are discussed and brought into the training, as well as our day-to-day evaluation of ourselves,” he said.
Law enforcement agencies typically point to arrest rates when asked to explain disparities in officer-involved shootings.
In Kern County, blacks are more than four times likely to be arrested on suspicion of violent felonies than whites, while Latinos are slightly less likely, according to statistics provided by the California Department of Justice.
However, criminal justice experts say arrest rates may not tell the whole story on violence within communities.
“It’s not who committed crimes, it’s who gets arrested for crimes,” Chris Smith, a professor of sociology at UC Davis who studies crime and inequality, said of arrest rates.
Additionally, the BPD does not use arrests for violent incidents as a way to explain disparities in officer-involved shootings.
“The only way to examine the appropriateness of an officer-involved shooting (is) to look at the circumstances in each one individually,” McCauley wrote in an emailed statement. “Every use of deadly force is examined with the utmost scrutiny, and any indication that race played a part in the officer’s decisions would be addressed immediately.”
While experts provide few answers for reasons why officer-involved shootings heavily impact Bakersfield’s communities of color, and the BPD also could not explain the disparity, officer-involved shootings can have a corrosive effect on those impacted the most.
“Fear, disconnection from law enforcement, lack of trust, these are obvious in communities of color,” said Nancy Renfro, co-founder of Community TRUSTT, a local volunteer organization that meets with law enforcement agencies each month to discuss potential reforms. “We need the police to do what they do. We also need the community to be confident enough and have enough trust in law enforcement to inform them when they see dangerous activity, and that is not happening very often.”
But Renfro said she sees hope that the future could bring changes to Bakersfield.
"I’m very encouraged by programs like principled policing," she said, referring to a police training procedure that addresses implicit bias.
Community TRUSTT has pushed for independent reviews of use-of-force incidents. Currently, the BPD internally reviews such incidents, finding every officer-involved shooting but one in the last 10 years to be within department policies.
By pushing for independent review, along strategies like de-escalation, the group hopes to change the BPD’s and the Kern County Sheriff's Office's approach to force.
Through Community TRUSTT’s and others’ work with the BPD and the Sheriff’s Office, Renfro says that perhaps communities that have long been distrustful of law enforcement could begin to work with police officers.
Although it may take a long time, change could be on the horizon.
“We are hoping that we can contribute to healing that disconnect,” she said. “We are hoping that we can somehow contribute to healing this community.”