Two new ACLU reports have put Central Valley law enforcement in the spotlight. They find excessive use of force by the Fresno and Bakersfield police departments and Kern County Sheriff's Office.
The findings come as no surprise to Bakersfield resident Laura Serna.
Serna’s 73-year-old father, Francisco, suffered from dementia, and tended to wander. Last December, he walked out of his house carrying a crucifix.
"We don’t know how lucid he was at the time," Serna says.
A neighbor saw Francisco outside, mistook the crucifix for a gun and called 911. A Bakersfield police officer arrived and shot seven rounds toward Francisco, killing him just feet from his home.
"The police came out and killed him without truly investigating or seeing what the problem was," says Serna.
Serna was also frustrated with the department's probe into the shooting.
"They used their own investigators, and I feel like that’s a conflict of interest," she says. Since the shooting she has been working with advocacy group Faith in Kern to push for reforms. "I’d like to see an office of independent review with some teeth here locally," she says.
Stories like Serna's aren't new.
The Bakersfield Police Department changed some of its use of force policies because of a federal Justice Department investigation a decade ago.
Last December, the State Attorney General's Office opened investigations into the Bakersfield Police Department and Kern County Sheriff's Office for potential civil rights violations.
That’s where the ACLU comes in.
"We wanted to provide a data analysis in aid of the attorney general’s investigation," says ACLU staff attorney Adrienna Wong.
The new report she helped write found that the Bakersfield Police Department had the highest rate of police homicides per capita of the country’s 60 largest police departments. It also found Kern County sheriff’s deputies shot and killed far more people than other agencies in areas with similar populations.
"What’s also striking is that many of the shootings we reviewed involved people who were unarmed," Wong says. "And we found that more people of color were being shot and killed."
The ACLU also found excessive use of force in the form of dog attacks, beatings and tazings.
Mark Nations, a lawyer for Kern County, takes issue will the report.
"We feel that it was based on partial and in many cases inaccurate information," he says, declining to elaborate because of the attorney general's ongoing investigation.
The ACLU’s Fresno report focused on officer-involved shootings, though the department is not currently under investigation by the state.
The report found Fresno police averaged about nine shootings per year. Staff attorney Novella Coleman says that’s high, and she worries about repeat shooters.
"In Fresno there are 55 officers who have been involved in multiple shootings," she says. "When you consider that most officers go their whole careers without even discharging their firearm, that is definitely a troubling statistic for Fresno."
But Fresno Police Chief Jerry Dyer points to a grand jury report that reviewed 17 years of officer-involved shooting investigations and reached largely favorable conclusions.
That report did recommend requiring practice sessions for use of de-escalation techniques on a quarterly basis, not just once every two years or after a shooting occurs.
"I’m very confident that the policies and the training procedures that we have in place are very sound," Dyer says.
The ACLU submitted both reports to the California Attorney General’s Office.