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Who should investigate police shootings of unarmed civilians? New law gets state DOJ involved when someone dies

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Sheriff Donny Youngblood spoke from the Kern County Sheriff's headquarters in a July 15 photo.

Local law enforcement is grappling with the implementation of new legislation that takes away some police investigation powers from the Kern County District Attorney's Office and gives them to the state Department of Justice.

Assembly Bill 1506, called the Police Use of Force, was signed into law by Gov. Gavin Newsom in September 2020 and became effective July 1. It requires the attorney general to investigate shootings resulting in the death of an unarmed civilian by a police officer and publish the findings online.

Attorney General Rob Bonta said AB 1506 aims to inject independence into the review process of all such incidents and create transparency between communities and law enforcement.

“We will be acting as an independent, outside agency on these critical cases, in line with the law's requirements,” Bonta said in a news conference July 7. “The final charging decision will be up to this office and nobody else. Californians deserve to know that there is a fair and impartial process in place that capably and timely investigates officer-involved shootings.”

But Kern County District Attorney Cynthia Zimmer and Sheriff Donny Youngblood say the local DA's office already offers independence.

Zimmer said her investigations are devoid of influence from local authorities and assuming otherwise is incorrect. Youngblood said the Department of Justice’s inquiry will arrive at the same conclusion as the local DA.

“The Department of Justice has had the ability to indict an officer for a bad shooting at any time, and did not,” Youngblood added. “You have to assume from that, that the officers are within the law.”

Attorney Daniel Rodriguez, founder of law firm Rodriguez and Associates, explained that before this new law, the attorney general could prosecute law enforcement with his “discretion." The local district attorney and the police would investigate all shootings involving deadly force by law enforcement, Rodriguez added.

Rodriguez said this law creates greater transparency for many citizens who harbor mistrust toward police.

“When you have a report … you get to see exactly what was considered, what evidence was gathered … and weighed,” Rodriguez said.

Bonta said his office will publish a report detailing its findings.

“One of the most important tasks ahead for public safety and our society is building and maintaining trust between our communities and law enforcement,” Bonta said in a news release. “Impartial, fair investigations and independent reviews of officer-involved shootings are one essential component for achieving that trust.”

But Zimmer said removing local control does not allow the residents of Kern County to voice their opinion.

“What happens if the voters of Kern County don't like the way the case was handled?” Zimmer said. “The 900,000 people in Kern County aren't going to have the pull alone to be able to vote (Attorney General Bonta) out. The voters voted (for) me to make these decisions.”

Combating mistrust

In June 2020, the Bakersfield Police Department Community Collaborative Core Working Group submitted recommendations to the Bakersfield City Council about policing reforms. Initiatives within the report sought to create trust between law enforcement agencies and communities of color, said Traco Matthews, a member of the group.

AB 1560 aligns with the mission of those suggestions, he said. Publicizing the attorney general's decision-making process on police use of deadly force helps Californians shed their mistrust, Matthews said.

“Greater independence could be a positive in service of strengthening trust in law enforcement agencies and communities — especially communities of color,” Matthews said. “BPD and law enforcement agencies generally want to do the right thing in terms of strengthening trust.”

Matthews said the DA and law enforcement often work together, which can create a conflict of interest in these proceedings.

“In order to do public safety more effectively, we have to do it together,” Matthews said. “Not just law enforcement agencies on an island — the community must be involved. The public has reason to be engaged and to share feedback … and ultimately partner in this really important work.”

Shooting investigation teams

There are two types of investigations when law enforcement uses deadly force: criminal and administrative, Youngblood said. The administrative inquiry examines if the police officer’s actions abide by department policy, while the DA conducts a criminal investigation to determine if the official broke the law, Youngblood added.

But now, for qualifying officer-involved shootings, AB 1560 creates the Californian Police Shooting Investigation Team. Deployed investigators will travel to the site of an incident, upon notification by local law enforcement agencies, to conduct their own inquiry. One team will cover Southern California, and another team will oversee Northern California, Bonta said in his news conference.

Youngblood said he was unsure how the oversight process will be implemented when investigations must be conducted within a short time.

“We’re not going to leave a (downed suspect) in the roadway until the Department of Justice gets here,” Youngblood said. “There … is a short window to gather witnesses, and make sure evidence isn’t destroyed or changed by the environment. We certainly want to work side by side with them, but we also need them to be there as quickly as possible.”

Based on data collected by the state Department of Justice, there will likely be 40 to 50 officer-involved shootings each year that will require an investigation by the Attorney General, Bonta said in his press conference. 

Coronavirus Cases widget

  • Positive Cases Among Kern Residents: 159,023

  • Deaths: 1,841

  • Recovered and Presumed Recovered Residents: 151,858 

  • Percentage of all cases that are unvaccinated: 91.90

  • Percentage of all hospitalizations that are unvaccinated: 92.54

  • Source: Kern County Public Health Services Department

Updated: 12/7/21