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Deadly shootings prompt state civil rights probe of Kern County, Bakersfield policing

Deadly shootings prompt state civil rights probe of Kern County, Bakersfield policing
Rubia Serna is consoled by her sons Jesse Serna, right, and Frank Serna at a candlelight vigil for Francisco Serna, her husband and their father. (Felix Adamo / Bakersfield Californian / Associated Press)

The California attorney general's office has opened a civil rights investigation into two law enforcement agencies after a series of deadly shootings — including the death of a 73-year-old man.

The two noncriminal investigations will look into whether the Kern County Sheriff's Office and the Bakersfield Police Department have shown a "pattern or practice" of violating state or federal law, and could lead to demands for reforms. They will be conducted by the state Department of Justice Civil Rights Enforcement Section.

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The department decided to investigate after complaints by residents and community organizations. It also looked at media reports and spent more than a year reviewing information on officer-involved shootings and deaths of people in police custody, the office said in a statement Thursday.

"Excessive use of force and police misconduct erode and undermine the public's trust in our law enforcement agencies," Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris, who heads the Department of Justice, said in the statement.

Harris' department has not reached any conclusions about misconduct by the two agencies. She said the investigations will be impartial and thorough.

"We look forward to working collaboratively with the Sheriff's Office and the Police Department, as well as with the community, to address any civil rights violations or other issues that we may find during these investigations," Harris said.

There was no indication of when the probes might be completed.

The sheriff's office and Bakersfield police didn't immediately respond to requests for comment.

The most recent controversial shooting occurred earlier this month, when a Bakersfield officer killed Francisco Serna, 73.

Police responding to a 911 call about a man with a gun confronted Serna. An officer shot him after police say Serna refused to take his hand out of his pocket and stop walking toward officers.

Police later concluded that Serna was not carrying a gun but did have a dark-colored plastic crucifix.

Serna's family said he had dementia and would go on short walks in his neighborhood to help tire him out so he could sleep. The family had called for an independent investigation of the shooting.

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