I know the problem of police brutality well. In 1988, a San Francisco police officer pummeled me in the back with a baton during a peaceful protest. I suffered four broken ribs and a ruptured spleen. One of four police victims, I nearly died from the loss of blood due to internal bleeding.
As a woman of color and labor activist, I also know that police routinely use excessive force, not only during protests, but also during routine interactions with individuals, especially individuals of color. It must stop now.
Real police reform must happen everywhere in America, and here too in Kern County.
For far too long, people of color in Bakersfield and Kern County have been subjected to unwarranted abuse by law enforcement officers who are sworn to protect our communities.
These abuses— widely documented by the media and the American Civil Liberties Union — are the subject of a pending state attorney general’s investigation that is now well into its third year.
When protests erupted across the country after the Minneapolis Police killing of George Floyd, it came as no surprise to us at the Dolores Huerta Foundation that demonstrations also took place in Bakersfield, a region notorious for having one of the country’s worst law enforcement operations.
Evaluations handed out by Campaign Zero, a nationally respected police reform organization, gave “F” grades to both the Bakersfield Police Department and the Kern County Sheriff’s Office based on their levels of violence, lack of accountability and poor performance on key criteria such as solving murders. It is sad that we needed the George Floyd protests to remind us of reforms that should have been adopted five years ago following The Guardian’s investigative series on police and sheriff excessive force.
The Bakersfield Californian affirmed the ongoing nature of the problem last year when it documented 33 fatal Bakersfield police shootings in 10 years, with 81 percent of officer-involved shootings targeting people of color.
Prior to its June 10 meeting, the Bakersfield City Council received nearly 2,000 emails demanding police reforms. At the end of the meeting, Councilman Andrae Gonzales offered police a path toward reestablishing trust with communities of color. The department should take it.
Gonzales proposed that the council adopt a list of #8CantWait recommendations proposed by Campaign Zero that police immediately ban chokeholds and strangleholds, only use deadly force as a last resort, issue verbal warnings before shooting, refrain from firing weapons at moving vehicles, intervene when other officers use excessive force, and create comprehensive use-of-force reporting procedures.
California Attorney General Xavier Becerra has urged police to incorporate the recommendations, use only a proportional level of force and limit the out-of-control use of police dogs — a major problem outlined in the 2017 ACLU report.
I agree with Attorney General Becerra’s proposals to decertify officers who commit serious misconduct so that they can’t work for other police agencies. We endorse his proposals that police agencies review their policies and procedures, establish implicit bias training, and restrict the use of rubber bullets, chemical agents and batons in crowd control situations. There is no need to use pepper spray on children in detention, and we join his call to deploy mental health and social service professionals as first responders in appropriate cases, especially with people experiencing homelessness.
Both BPD and KCSO need to immediately implement all of the recommendations.
While we wait for the attorney general to conclude the investigation into local law enforcement to determine if they use force excessively or engage in other types of misconduct, the Bakersfield City Council approved a 10 percent increase in the police department budget that would add 44 new positions and increase its spending to $119.9 million — almost 19 percent of all city spending.
The budget process gives our city lawmakers an opportunity to scrutinize law enforcement spending to ensure the money is spent to protect the public and not to abuse its citizens.
Despite the massive law enforcement spending, the city and the county are still plagued with crime. Funds need to be redirected to social workers, counselors and education to address the roots of criminal behavior. Giving more money to law enforcement does not work.
Since the protests began, two more people of color have been killed by police. One of them was mentally ill. Police should not be the judge, jury and executioners. When people commit a crime, they have the constitutional right for a jury to decide their fate, not the police.
Civil Rights and labor leader Dolores Huerta is president of the Dolores Huerta Foundation, co-founder of the United Farm Workers union, and a Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient.