ACLU study blasts Bakersfield police, Kern County Sheriff's Office for 'disturbing pattern' of force

The American Civil Liberties Union called for major reforms in the Bakersfield Police Department and the Kern County Sheriff’s Office on Wednesday, releasing a scathing report that detailed repeated allegations of excessive force and the misuse of police dogs to injure and intimidate suspects.

Both departments were already the subject of a civil rights investigation by the California attorney general’s office, and the ACLU said Thursday that its study shows officers and deputies have been involved in “a disturbing pattern of shootings, beatings and canine attacks” in recent years, many of which involved unarmed suspects.

"We urge the office of the attorney general to take all action within its power to correct the patterns and practices we've identified," Adrienna Wong, a senior staff attorney for the ACLU of Southern California, said in a statement. "The people of Kern County have the right to live free from police excessive force."

Both agencies have been involved in a disproportionately higher number of shootings compared with other California law enforcement agencies that police populations of similar size and rates of crime, according to the study. Bakersfield police have shot and killed 19 people since 2013, according to the study. Authors of the report also found that since 2009, one-quarter of all people shot by Police Department officers were unarmed.

A “significant percentage” of the people shot by both agencies were also exhibiting signs of mental illness at the time of their contact with police, according to the study.

A call to a Bakersfield police spokesman seeking comment was not returned. The Kern County Sheriff’s Office referred all questions to the county counsel’s office. Kendra Graham, an attorney with that office, declined to comment Friday as she had not yet reviewed the ACLU report.

The ACLU also harshly criticized both departments’ policies governing the use of dogs to subdue suspects.

Most police agencies primarily use K-9 units only to detain suspects believed to have committed serious crimes, but Bakersfield police and the Kern County Sheriff’s Office both have policies that allow officers to use canines against suspects in less serious cases.

Officers can also dispatch K-9 units without the approval of a supervisor, and Bakersfield police have been repeatedly accused of using dogs to intimidate suspects or get them to consent to searches, the study found.

According to the report, Bakersfield police “deploy canines to bite suspects who are merely resisting or even threatening to resist arrest, as well as suspects in concealed locations.”

The Police Department came under fire this year when a 19-year-old woman was mistaken for an armed male suspect and beaten by officers, according to authorities and a lawsuit filed against the agency. Tatyana Hargrove said she was on crutches when officers approached her with their guns drawn.

Hargrove said an officer asked to search her backpack, and when she asked the officer if he had a warrant, he pointed to a police dog. Another officer than grabbed her wrist and punched her in the face, according to Hargrove, who released hospital pictures that showed the injuries she said she suffered during the incident.

The suspect police were searching for that day was described as a 30-year-old male who stood 5 feet and 10 inches tall, weighed about 160 pounds and had a shaved head and goatee, according to a police report. Hargrove stands 5 feet 2 and weighs 120 pounds, according to the same report.

The study also criticized the Sheriff’s Office for its use of what is often referred to as “less-lethal” force. At least nine people have died after being beaten, struck with batons or shot with a Taser by sheriff’s deputies since 2009, according to the study.

Former California Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris ordered a state civil rights investigation into the conduct of both police agencies in late 2016. The investigation was sparked by citizen complaints and media reports about numerous shootings of unarmed suspects by both agencies.

The Bakersfield Police Department turned over records to to the attorney general’s office this year. In June, state investigators also began interviewing families whose relatives have been killed by officers in Kern County, advocates said. The attorney general’s office did not immediately respond to a request for an update on the status of the civil rights investigation.

Weeks before Harris announced the investigation, a Bakersfield police officer shot and killed 73-year-old Francisco Serna. Officers responding to a call about a man with a gun approached Serna and shot him when he walked toward them.

Serna was unarmed and was carrying a dark-colored plastic crucifix. His relatives said Serna suffered from dementia.

james.queally@latimes.com

Follow @JamesQueallyLAT for crime and police news in California.

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