The Kern County sheriff’s sergeant and six deputies at the beating of a man who died after being struck by batons have been placed on paid administrative leave, in part because they have received emailed threats, the sheriff said.
Silva, 33, a father of four, was pronounced dead May 8. Witnesses reported seeing several deputies repeatedly strike the man in the head with batons as he lay on the pavement.
Youngblood said he has asked the FBI to analyze two cellphones taken from witnesses, who say they recorded the incident. Bakersfield police said they could find only one of the videos.
“I took the unprecedented step of asking the FBI to conduct a parallel investigation,” Youngblood told The Times. “Our credibility is at stake here.”
Youngblood said he has also placed the deputies involved on paid administrative leave.
“Because of information we have received in the last 48 hours, I made that decision,” he said. “It is a question of officer safety on the streets. We have also taken measures to protect their homes.”
He provided no further details on the threats.
Two witnesses told The Times that they watched the videos on each of the phones last week in the wake of Silva’s death. The case is generating widespread attention because several witnesses have come forward to say deputies ruthlessly beat Silva with batons even after he was motionless on the ground.
Youngblood said in an interview that he did not dispute the witnesses’ accounts about the videos but said he would not draw any conclusions until the investigations were complete.
The cellphones were flown to the FBI’s Sacramento office Tuesday for analysis.
The FBI said it had agreed to launch an inquiry and emphasized that it would be independent of the sheriff’s own work.
It appears several videos captured parts of the incident. Last week, KERO-TV broadcast grainy footage from a security camera. The Times on Tuesday reviewed a security video provided by a source, which showed blurry images of figures swinging batons or sticks at a man on the ground.
Youngblood said the Bakersfield Police Department found a video on one of the phones; he asked the department to do the analysis to avoid a conflict of interest. He declined to elaborate on the length or condition of the video, but confirmed that it shows baton blows.
“I have seen the video,” said Youngblood at a news conference Tuesday afternoon. “I cannot speculate whether they acted appropriately or not just by looking at the video.”
“Baton strikes were used but what I don’t know is how many and where they were on the body and if they caused significant injury that caused death,” he added.
In interviews Tuesday, witnesses insisted that the videos on both phones — each several minutes long — clearly captured deputies repeatedly striking Silva with batons.
“They must have gotten rid of one of the videos,” said Melissa Quair, 31, who told of seeing deputies pummel and kick Silva after confronting him across the street from Kern Medical Center in East Bakersfield. Quair and several relatives and friends were at the hospital because a family member had been in a car crash.
Quair said a phone video shot by her mother showed a deputy trying to block her view of the beating. “She went around him and told him, ‘I’m still recording,’ ” Quair said.
Laura Vasquez, 26, a friend of the Quair family, said she also watched both videos — the other shot by a friend of Melissa Quair — and they vividly depicted the violence she witnessed.
Echoing the account of two other people interviewed, Vasquez said the first two deputies at the scene woke Silva, who was sleeping in front of a house, and ordered him not to move. When Silva sat up, looking confused or scared, a deputy hit him in the head, Vasquez said.
“He fell back and then the other officer got out and swung toward his head,” she said. “Mr. Silva was reaching for his head and the officers said ‘stop moving’ and ‘stop resisting.’ He wasn’t resisting.… He rolled on his back and they kept hitting.”
More deputies and two California Highway Patrol officers arrived at the scene. Vasquez said the deputies hogtied Silva, lifted him off the ground and dropped him twice, and delivered more baton blows and kicks to his head and body until he went limp.
“He was screaming for help. He was laying on his chest. The cops were still on top of him, still hitting him. My family and I screamed at them to stop hitting him.… The blood was all over Mr. Silva’s face. We couldn’t even tell if he had eyes or a mouth.”
Vasquez said her friend yelled, “ ‘Somebody call the cops,’ and everybody looked at her and said, ‘They ARE the cops.’ ”
The friend, Sulina Quair, 34, said she called 911 and told the dispatcher she would give one of the phone videos to the news media.
“We were right across the street. We could see the whole thing,” she said. “A cop light lit up the whole scene. I could remember every single one of [the deputies]. I dream about them every night. I wake up screaming. The beating was so brutal. I can still hear Mr. Silva screaming and yelling and gargling his blood.”
An attorney for Silva’s family said he had gone to the medical center for help with an emotional problem, then settled across the street after he was told by a security officer he could not sleep at the hospital. The lawyer, David Cohn, said he did not know if Silva, who had two previous arrests involving alcohol, was drunk. Sheriff’s officials said they were called to the scene after someone reported that a man was intoxicated there.
In an earlier statement, the Sheriff’s Office said Silva had resisted arrest, forcing deputies to use force. Silva was pronounced dead at 12:44 a.m. May 8, less than an hour after the confrontation began.
During the hours that followed, sheriff’s detectives detained several witnesses when they refused to turn over phones they said had footage of the beating. The two phones were confiscated after the detectives obtained a search warrant.
The Silva death is the latest high-profile brutality case involving the Kern County Sheriff’s Office in recent years.
One resulted in criminal convictions of three deputies and a $6-million civil judgment in the 2005 death of a jail inmate, according to attorneys. An second ended with a $4.5-million court award for the family of a man who died in 2010 after being struck 33 times with batons and struck by a Taser 29 times, attorneys said.