How the officers of American law enforcements deadliest county plan to continue policing themselves
The vial of methamphetamine that the police officers found on Amyra Nicholson was small, she said, but their reaction was overwhelming.
Nicholson, who said her purse was searched because she was holding it too tight while standing in her front yard in Bakersfield, California, alleged that she was taken to her bathroom in handcuffs, made to bend over and given an unnecessary cavity search.
Nicholsons 14-year-old daughter was summoned and told by the same female officer to disrobe to complete nakedness for a strip search while male officers stood pointing their handguns, according to a lawsuit from Nicholson that the city eventually settled for $35,000.
One of the accused officers, Scott Tunnicliffe, no longer works for the Bakersfield police department. Instead, he has been placed in charge of scrutinising it.
After decades in which deaths involving officers in the two biggest police departments in Kern County have been investigated only by the departments themselves, the office of the countys district attorney has in recent weeks become able to review such incidents if it chooses. The DAs office claims to offer a newfound impartiality. Were not part of them, though we work with them, assistant DA Scott Spielman said recently of the local police.
But the connections are closer even than previously acknowledged, a Guardian investigation into the law enforcement officers of Kern County, who have killed more people per capita than in any other US county so far in 2015, has found. The findings lend weight to claims from critics that police in Kern County are effectively policed only by themselves.
Tunnicliffe, the DAs 55-year-old chief investigator, retired as a Bakersfield lieutenant in 2013, and receives a $75,000-a-year pension for his police work in addition to his salary. Of 26 other investigators working under him in the DAs office that could be identified, 19 were also previously Bakersfield police officers or Kern County sheriffs deputies, according to a review of public records. Three were former officers of other law enforcement agencies.
One of the other four investigators is a director of the Kern Law Enforcement Association, a union that represents the same Kern County sheriffs deputies whose potential fatal shootings would be reviewed by the DAs office.
Another DAs investigator accidentally shot and injured a high school footballer as an officer in Tulare, California, during a botched drunk-driving arrest in 1986. Lawsuits over the shooting were settled for $70,000, according to local reports from the time. The officer later worked for two decades as a Bakersfield police detective before moving to the DAs office in 2012.
District attorney Lisa Green, who declined to be interviewed, said in a statement she would ensure that any reviews of killings by police would be conducted in a fair and professional manner. Green, who has received thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from police unions and officers since 2008, declined to comment on whether her investigators ties to the police could jeopardise this fairness. Tunnicliffe did not respond to questions about his new job or his role in the 2008 incident involving Nicholson, who has since died.
But the relatives of several people killed in recent years by law enforcement officers in Kern County said they were exasperated by the insular investigation process that followed the deaths, and did not trust local authorities to respond even-handedly.
If I committed a crime and investigated myself, I would be innocent, said Traci Alderman, whose nephew Jason was shot dead by a Bakersfield police officer in August this year. Aldermans death is the first officer-involved shooting by the city department due to be reviewed by the DAs office. In this town, they hand your gun back and say, basically, Go do it again, said his mother, Judy Edens.
Amid indifference from local authorities, five families of people killed by police, along with civil rights campaigners and attorneys, said an inquiry into Kern Countys criminal justice system was now required if trust between officers and sections of the community were to be restored. Several cited incquiries launched by federal officials into other agencies across the US mired in their own controversies.
Frankly, I feel the US Justice Department should come in, confiscate their computers, and do a thorough investigation of at least the last 10 years, said Henry Mosier, a recently retired public defender, who in 2010 threw a Kern County prosecution based on a police sting operation into chaos by uncovering that a detective buried unfavourable evidence in the desert. The cities and the county officers. All of them.
If a police officer shoots and kills someone in Fresno, California, about 100 miles to the north of Bakersfield, the departments own inquiry is matched automatically with a separate investigation by the district attorney and a review by the citys Independent Police Auditor.
The goal, as in hundreds of other jurisdictions across the US, is to ensure at least the appearance of impartiality through freedom from internal loyalties and self-interest. You have two different entities that investigate the shooting that are totally outside of our control, said Fresnos deputy police chief, Pat Farmer. It makes the public feel theres no chance of us turning a blind eye to something that we perhaps dont want to expose.
Even in Ferguson, Missouri, where local officials were accused of mishandling almost everything about the aftermath of the fatal police shooting of Michael Brown in August 2014, the citys police chief quickly asked St Louis County police to take over the criminal investigation, in an attempt to avoid compounding allegations of a cover-up.
But in Kern County things are done differently.
When either a Bakersfield police officer or Kern County deputy shoots a suspect dead, two inquiries are triggered. But both are run by colleagues of the officer who opened fire. An investigation by internal affairs gathers evidence on whether the shooting complied with department policy. Detectives meanwhile look for any evidence of potential criminality.
In both departments, findings are presented to panels of senior commanders who sit in private. Bakersfields critical incident review board is made up of the assistant chief of police and four captains. At the sheriffs office, the sheriffs four chief deputies perform the same role. In an interview, Bakersfield police chief Greg Williamson insisted his panel acted impartially despite their apparent conflict of interest:
Documents released by Bakersfield in response to a public records request showed the panel of police captains typically signs off on fatal shootings with only a two-line memo to Williamson. Kern County rejected several requests for any records relating to its own incident review board, claiming they were protected by California law.
State legislation dating from the 1970s, including a peace officers bill of rights, places such documents under arguably the tightest restrictions on police records in all the US. Requests for personnel files and disciplinary histories are flatly rejected on the basis that their release would constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.
They will work to prevent you from getting any information whatsoever, said Don Cook, a veteran attorney who has fought cases against law enforcement in Kern County over excessive use of police dogs. I have had to fight tooth and nail to get it. Jim De Simone, an attorney who won a settlement for a man badly injured during a police traffic stop in 2012, agreed: To get cases resolved, you almost have to be complicit in the protection of officers.
Under an agreement reached between the district attorney and the countys two major police departments in July this year, the DAs office may investigate an officer-involved shooting itself separately if it wishes. It may, however, simply review the existing findings of detectives who are the colleagues of the officer who fired and former colleagues of most DAs investigators.
And the DAs office, which has looked into such shootings by the countys smaller departments for years, declines to make public details of how extensive their investigations actually are. It agreed to release only a series of two-line decision memos in which it stated that following a review of inquiries it had been determined that the police were justified.
This lack of transparency has angered residents whose relatives were killed. Its very frustrating that they are still able to investigate their own and justify their own, said Nicole Ramirez, whose unarmed brother Jorge was fatally shot by a group of officers during a botched sting operation while working as a police informant in 2013. In Ferguson they had a grand jury. Why cant we get a grand jury?
Police only disclosed Ramirezs brother was working for them, rather than a suspect, after she and her family obtained the 34-year-olds text messages from the night he died through an online archive. What if we hadnt? she said. I really believe we need a third-party agency here. We need the Department of Justice to come and take over Bakersfield police department.
Kern County sheriffs deputy John Swearengin was rushing to assist the chase of a grand theft auto suspect miles across Bakersfield. But before he got there, he created a crime scene of his own.
It was December 2011. The deputy had been driving at 80 mph in a 45 mph zone. With his pedal to the metal, according to a sworn deposition, he sped through several intersections. Then his car struck two people. Chrystal Jolley, 30, and 24-year-old Daniel Hiler were crossing the road with a motorcycle. Swearengen hit the pair at 64 mph and applied the brakes just a half second before impact. Both Jolley and Hiler were killed.
The deputy had not activated his emergency lights or sirens, and later conceded during the deposition that he had no idea how fast he was travelling. Swearengin had also been disciplined for poor driving in the past.
Whitney Peaker, Hilers fiancee, had been on her way to meet him. She walked over to the police line, where a crowd had assembled, eager to see what the commotion was about. Then she realised the father of her two baby boys was dead. I just went into a state of shock, she said in an interview. I remember, but I dont remember, because I just froze.
Swearengin argued he was authorised to disregard the rules of the road even without his sirens on. He said it was his understanding that the department required officers to request permission before turning on sirens and emergency lights, and that he had been reaching for the radio to make this request when the crash happened.
But both the deposition of a senior Kern County lieutenant and the departments rulebook on emergency driving, which states speeds above posted speed limits are rarely necessary or justified contradicted him.
Swearengin was charged with two felony counts of vehicular manslaughter and gross negligence. After a judge ruled that his prior disciplinary record would be inadmissible in court due to the peace officers bill of rights, he agreed to plead guilty to one count of misdemeanour vehicular manslaughter. He was sentenced to 480 hours of community service and fined $470. The city settled two civil lawsuits over the case for $8.8m.
Despite this, Swearengin was allowed to return to work, and continues to serve as a deputy sheriff.
In an interview, Kern County sheriff Donny Youngblood once again cited the peace officers bill of rights when declining to detail how Swearengin was disciplined. He said, however, that the sanctions against him were substantial.
His intent was not to do something bad, Youngblood said in justifying his decision to keep Swearengin on the force. His intent was to do something good.
In addition to the ironclad bill of rights, California is one of only six states that lacks a regulatory commission empowered to revoke the law enforcement licences of officers who have done wrong, just as a lawyer or doctor may be struck from their profession.
As a result, the state has one of the countrys lowest rates for officer terminations. Those dismissed over conduct in the job are frequently rehired at other departments that fail to obtain full details of their wrongdoing or take advantage of it to pay a lower salary, according to professor Roger Goldman of St Louis University, who analyses police licensing laws.
For Whitney Peaker, Swearengins intentions were irrelevant. I feel like he shouldve lost his job, she said, as her mother wept. He should have done prison time for it.
He goes home every night to his family. His kids kiss him goodnight, and my sons will never have that.
It would take the death of another civilian, this time a 72-year-old woman, for the department to introduce any significant reform to its driving policies.
Nancy Garrett had finished watching the Los Angeles Dodgers beat the Colorado Rockies in a game that went to extra innings. As she drove back from her sons house in the early hours of the morning in September last year, she passed through an intersection and was struck by deputy Nicholas Clericos patrol car. The officer was driving to assist with an arrest at a bar fight and had his lights and sirens activated. He was not wearing a seatbelt.
An exhaustive California Highway Patrol investigation file into the incident, seen by the Guardian, reveals Clerico was travelling at approximately 85 mph over double the limit when he struck Garretts white Hyundai. Clerico had driven through a red light and applied his brakes just 0.02 seconds before the crash. The investigation, which found that Garrett was driving on an expired driving license, concluded Clerico was to blame for the collision.
The investigation also reveals that Clerico had been been involved in an on-duty collision before. In December 2012 he crashed while driving his patrol car in Tehachapi while driving at an unsafe speed. Just two months earlier, he had been involved in another accident while off duty. Clerico was found to be at fault for both.
Garretts adult children, Mark McGowan and Debbie Blanco, are furious that Clerico was allowed to remain behind the wheel. Adding to their anger is the fact that their mothers death occurred just 1.8 miles down the road from the fatal crash involving Hiler and Jolley, in the same Bakersfield suburb.
Clerico has been charged with misdemeanour vehicular manslaughter but remains on paid administrative leave.
A month after Garretts death, Youngblood announced some reforms. He would prevent deputies who were caught speeding from driving to and from work in their patrol vehicles a move contested by the police union, who demanded the department reimburse officers personal fuel costs. He also installed GPS tracking to monitor officers speeds, and enforced seatbelt checks.
For Mark McGowan, the new policies are meaningless. My mom is dead, of course its not enough. Nothing is going to be enough, he said through tears. Is it enough for the next person? I hope so.
But on 14 July this year, 59-year-old Larry Maharrey was killed in a collision with Kern County sheriffs deputy Marvin Gomezs patrol car. Police promptly said Maharrey crashed into Gomez. But according to a recently filed civil claim, deputy Gomez, who had his lights and sirens on as he responded to an emergency call, turned through a red light and collided with Maharreys motorcycle.
The fatal crash occurred on the same road on which Hiler and Jolley were killed in 2011.
It is little known to the public, and barely makes a sound. But Kern County already has a watchdog body that is supposed to investigate and audit all aspects of Kern County government. Confusingly named a grand jury, this 19-person panel of volunteers is responsible more for monitoring municipal authorities than considering criminal indictments.
The jurors have subpoena power and may conduct hearings. A four-person law and justice committee within the panel is responsible specifically for oversight of all law enforcement agencies in the county and fielding public complaints. Yet annual reports filed by the committee indicate members displayed little curiosity about the actions of police officers, even as the county became the owner of the nations highest rate of officer-involved deaths.
While I was on the committee, I didnt see anything that would cause me to have to make inquiries on things, Mahlon Keel, the 2013-14 law and justice chairman, said in an interview. Asked whether he was confident officers always used force appropriately, Keel said: I wouldnt want to make a comment either way, simply because I dont know all the facts on any given situation. Keel did not recognise the names of people killed in controversial encounters with law enforcement officers in recent years.
Reports from past years show Keels predecessors inspected the police departments and found little needed to change. Recommendations: none, the committee said of Bakersfield police department in 2013. No response required.
Records show that among the 19 people selected for the 2013-14 grand jury, only two had any experience in law enforcement. At least 14 of the 19 were white some declined to say yet more than 51% of the countys population is Hispanic, according to the US census bureau. Only one juror was under the age of 55.
Keel, a retired farm equipment salesman of 30 years who does not have experience in law enforcement, dismissed criticism of the countys officers. People jump to conclusions without having the facts, he said, as evidenced in Ferguson and some other places back east.
City and county leaders show a similar lack of appetite for more scrutiny of officers. Neither Bakersfield mayor Harvey Hall nor city manager Alan Tandy would comment for this series about their oversight of law enforcement.
Councilman Willie Rivera, the only Democrat on Bakersfields seven-person city council, said in an interview that the issue appeared to be of no interest to other councillors and that he alone had been making inquiries about what recurring training officers in the county received to help them address and assess dangerous situations.
There still is a certain amount of disconnect between some of my colleagues and whats really going on in the streets, said Rivera. I cant necessarily tell you the rest of the council would be interested in asking those questions.
Both Williamson and Youngblood say they support the use of officer body cameras. But Youngblood has only begun trialling their use in Wasco, a city 30 miles north-west of Bakersfield, where a substation of 18 officers police 26,000 residents.
There is no such effort, however, at the Bakersfield police department. Williamson said the city manager had declined to provide the money required to apply for a federal grant. He cited the citys high litigation costs as one factor in the lack of funds. Others have requested a civilian review board of the type operating in other cities to monitor the actions of officers. Youngblood, however, sharply rejected the suggestion:
Outsiders have, however, combed through Bakersfields practices before. In 2003, officials in the Department of Justices civil rights division opened an investigation into the department, prompted by allegations about discriminatory practices by officers against Latino residents.
While Bakersfield commanders eventually trumpeted the finding that no constitutional violations were discovered, the federal inspectors were in fact sharply critical in other respects, according to DoJ documents. Bakersfields policies on the use of force were found to be in total disarray and failed to provide any guidance to officers on when force should be used.
The department was instructed to overhaul its regulations on firearms, pepper spray, chokeholds, shooting at moving cars, and using police dogs to bite people. It was also told to stop officers bringing their own weapons to work. We learned that officers in the department carry weapons that are not authorized by BPD policy, a senior official said in a 2004 letter. Bakersfield rebuffed a DoJ guideline that officers should have their guns taken from them after shootings.
Records show that in response to the criticism, Bakersfield bought an off-the-shelf set of regulations from Lexipol, a quickly growing California-based company that writes policy books for police departments and keeps up with changes to the laws so chiefs dont have to. Bakersfield now has a standard set of rules about when officers may shoot people.
But the extent to which the new rules have taken root across the department remains unclear. Under Bakersfields city charter, police are barred from hiring outside candidates except as entry-level rookies. All other vacancies, including that of the police chief, must be filled by promotions from within the ranks. This remarkable rule means the departments entire executive-level leadership officers at the rank of lieutenant or higher have served inside BPD for more than 10 years and arrived before the reform efforts.
The whole culture needs to change, said Kathleen Faulkner, a Bakersfield attorney who asked the Justice Department to investigate the first time around. They need to hire different people, select people. They need to look closer into their backgrounds and what kind of people they are. Their whole education is Be a tough guy, Shoot first, ask questions later, He was reaching for his waistband, We just want to go back to our families.
A survey of the departments rank and file carried out last year by the International Association of Chiefs of Police found officers scathing about the effect of this closed process. References to a buddy system, good ol boy system, nepotism, cronyism, friendships with respect to promotions and transfers were common, said the IACP.
The survey found fewer than half of officers said command staff lead by example and that they had confidence in the leadership of this organisation. Another statement failed to pass majority muster: I can freely communicate opinions, concerns and suggestions without fear of negative consequences.
At the end of October this year, Kern County deputies found themselves forced to initiate a manhunt for one of their own.
Deputy Edward Tucker, who had served in the department for 18 years, had been on unpaid leave for 12 months. Tucker, 44, had been arrested twice that week. After he flashed a handgun at a group of girls in Bakersfield, deputies uncovered methamphetamine and five handguns, two shotguns and an assault rifle in his car. Tucker was charged but posted bail.
Days later, a retired colleague asked deputies to check on him after he sent a series of suicidal text messages. The officers found Tucker in a park. Once again he was in possession of narcotics and firearms, but this time with an explosive detonating cord as well.
He was arrested and driven to jail in downtown Bakersfield. But as officers filled in paperwork in the carpark, somehow Tucker was able to slip his handcuffs, open the back door of the patrol car and walk calmly out of the facility.
He was on the run for two days, considered armed and dangerous, before being located and arrested at a home in Oildale.
Of course that is embarrassing, said Youngblood. But this organisation has 1,300 employees and its a team. One member of that team does something stupid like that, the rest of the team, they dont get behind them.
Tucker awaits trial on five felony charges, including wilful cruelty to a child, and four misdemeanors, including drugs possession. He remains a deputy of the Kern County sheriffs department.
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