After Guardian investigation, ACLU finds law enforcement in Kern County used excessive force and ‘engaged in patterns and practices that violate civil rights’
Two law enforcement agencies in Kern County, California, found to be the deadliest police departments in America by a Guardian investigation, have systematically deprived citizens of their constitutional rights due to frequent excessive force, according to a two-year investigation by the American Civil Liberties Union.
The ACLU of Southern California published a range of disturbing findings on Thursday in a report commissioned after a five-part Guardian series revealed the Bakersfield police department (BPD) and the Kern County sheriff’s office (KCSO) killed people at a higher rate than any other agencies in 2015. The series uncovered a culture of violence, secrecy and corruption in the county’s two largest police departments and led to ongoing civil rights investigations into the two departments announced by the California attorney general last year.
“Our findings show that both KCSO and BPD have engaged in patterns and practices that violate civil rights,” wrote ACLU California attorneys Adrienna Wong and Peter Bibring in a letter to the state attorney general Xavier Becerra. “KCSO and BPD officers have engaged in patterns of excessive force – including shooting and beating to death unarmed individuals and deploying canines to attack and injure – as well as a practice of filing intimidating or retaliatory criminal charges against individuals they subject to excessive force.
“Deficient oversight and accountability structures have allowed law enforcement misconduct to go unchecked and in some cases escalate.”
A spokeswoman for the California department of justice said the civil rights investigations into the two agencies were ongoing but would not give details on when they would conclude. The ACLU of Southern California, who delivered the report to Becerra on Thursday, urged the attorney general to “demand that KCSO and BPD correct their patterns and practices of abuse” or force the departments into reform through court action.
Officers from the two agencies have shot and killed 29 people since 2013 in a county of just 882,000 people. The ACLU found that Latino residents were disproportionately represented in the death toll, which featured a significant number of people who were unarmed at the time they were killed.
In addition, the rights group found that the departments had engaged routine overuse of force in other scenarios, pointing to five deaths between 2011 and 2013 after Kern County deputies had used police dogs, often on unarmed citizens. The report also found that at least 12 people had been killed by BPD and KCSO officers during beatings or after Taser deployments since 2009.
The report calls for a moratorium on the use of police dogs and an overhaul of officer training and use of force guidelines at both departments.
ACLU investigators also found statistical evidence that officers in Kern County have attempted to suppress allegations of excessive of force by pressing criminal charges against individuals who may have been assaulted by police officers.
In a sample of 2016 data the ACLU found that over half of the resisting arrest charges filed by the department also involved use of force by Bakersfield officers. In two cases where individuals were charged with assaulting a police animal, court records showed the accused had been bitten by police dogs and were attempting to defend themselves.
In the past three years Kern county deputies sought resisting arrest charges in 273 cases without seeking a charge for any other offense, the report found.
“The extent to which these charges are being filed suggests they’re being used intentionally and strategically to have the effect of making it harder to bring a civil rights claim,” Wong said in an interview.
The ACLU’s data corroborates allegations reported by the Guardian in individual cases.
The investigators also noted they were forced to rely on samples of data, rather than a complete set, due to “prohibitively high fees” charged by Kern County’s superior court to review records.
The ACLU called on Becerra’s office to conduct “a thorough review of court filings”, which it believes will “reveal more information about the agencies’ practice of improperly using criminal charges”.
The Kern County sheriff’s office and the Bakersfield police department did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
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