Muted outcry over Kern County beating: ‘We’ve gotten used to a lot here’

BAKERSFIELD -- Across the state, public outcry is growing over Kern County sheriff’s deputies who beat David Sal Silva, an unarmed man who died less than an hour after his screams for help fell silent. Authorities tracked down witnesses and confiscated their cellphones. A video on one of those phones may now be missing. The case has brought the FBI to Bakersfield.

But in Bakersfield, a city of 350,000, residents have remained largely silent.

It’s only 100 miles north of Los Angeles and less than three hours from the coast, yet many people here say, “Well, that’s how we do it in Kern County.”


This distinctive insularity has perhaps never been more evident than now.

“I think another community might really nut up over this,” said Lee Yeoman, a 73-year-old retired dentist. “We’ve gotten used to a lot here.”

Some say the muted response is due to a history of trusting law enforcement, others cite intimidation or resignation, and some say it’s just the Bakersfield way.

“We’re a cowboy town,” said a retired deputy, whose idea of a getaway is riding out of the city on his horse with a tin cup and bedroll. He gave a nod to an old cowboy proverb: “Never miss a good chance to shut up.”

Wilted flowers beneath a stop sign mark the place where Silva went limp. He died across the street at Kern Medical Center.

Silva had abruptly left the home he shared with his girlfriend and four young daughters May 7. Family friends said he visited his mother and told her he was going to the hospital. In response to a search warrant, a judge on Friday ordered the Mary K. Shell Mental Health Center to release video to the Kern County Sheriff’s Office possibly showing Silva before the incident.

The 33-year-old apparently fell asleep on the sidewalk in this neighborhood of mostly immigrant families.

Authorities said officers responded to a report of a possibly intoxicated man. A family leaving the hospital said they saw two officers wake Silva and tell him not to move.

When Silva sat up, a deputy hit him in the head, said Laura Vasquez, 26.

Witnesses said officers arrived and beat him with batons. Silva’s cries for help and the crack of the batons woke up many in the neighborhood.

A woman screamed, “Call the cops!” “They are the cops!” people shouted.

Still, the images have been enough to cause some uncommon criticism of local law enforcement. Steve E. Swenson, a retired reporter who covered crime and courts at the Bakersfield Californian for 33 years, said a few of his friends at the Episcopal church and his daily golf game are calling the beating brutal and the phone seizures an attempt at a coverup.

Criticism of deputies “doesn’t happen around here. The investigation isn’t even complete,” Swenson said. “We like and support law enforcement and usually give them the benefit of the doubt.”

Kern County Sheriff Danny Youngblood has asked the FBI to investigate. The deputies involved in the beating have been placed on paid administrative leave.


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Twitter: @dianamarcum