Police in Kern County, California, have killed more people per capita than in any other American county in 2015. The Guardian examines how, with little oversight, officers here became the country’s most lethal
Part one of a five-part series from The Counted
Seventy-five years after Kern County’s leaders banned The Grapes of Wrath from their schools and libraries, complaining that John Steinbeck’s new book portrayed their policemen as “divested of sympathy or human decency or understanding”, officer Aaron Stringer placed his hands on the body of James De La Rosa without permission.
De La Rosa had just been shot dead by police officers in Bakersfield, the biggest city in this central California county, after crashing his car when they tried to pull him over. He was unarmed. Now the 22-year-old oilfield worker lay on a gurney in the successor to the coroner’s office where Tom Joad’s granma awaited a pauper’s funeral in the 1939 novel.
Stringer, a senior Bakersfield officer whose plaudits for once saving a colleague in peril had been overshadowed by his arrest for a hit-and-run while driving under the influence of prescription drugs, reached under the bloodied white sheet and tickled De La Rosa’s toes. Then, a junior officer reported to commanders, he jerked the head to one side and joked about rigor mortis.
“I love playing with dead bodies,” said Stringer.
It was only the most remarkable act in recent times by a police officer in this rugged territory, where law enforcement officers have this year killed more people relative to the population than in any other American county recorded by The Counted, a Guardian investigation into the use of deadly force by police across the US in 2015.
In all, 13 people have been killed so far this year by law enforcement officers in Kern County, which has a population of just under 875,000. During the same period, nine people were killed by the NYPD across the five counties of New York City, where almost 10 times as many people live and about 23 times as many sworn law enforcement officers patrol.
The deaths span from January to the early hours of last Sunday morning, when a man accused of firing at officers during a foot chase in downtown Bakersfield was shot and killed. One senior Bakersfield police officer has been involved in at least four deadly shootings in less than two years. Another officer separately shot dead three people within two months in 2010. Other law enforcement officers in Kern County have meanwhile been involved in deadly beatings of unarmed men, sex crimes against women and reckless car crashes resulting in criminal convictions.
“They have some fine officers here, but unfortunately they have some bullies and thugs who often run the show,” Henry Mosier, who worked for the county as a public defender for a decade before his recent retirement, said in an interview.
This series of special reports, which is based on dozens of interviews, multiple hours spent with officers on patrol, and a review of thousands of documents obtained via public records requests and courthouse searches, will shed light on how the county’s law enforcement officers became the country’s deadliest, beginning today with fatal shootings.
Six of the people killed this year in Kern County died from shots fired by officers of Bakersfield police department, who have been behind a string of controversial homicides over the past several years, including that of De La Rosa.
A couple who witnessed the 22-year-old’s death last November told police investigators a similar story: they watched officers shoot De La Rosa after he exited his car and “threw up his hands”, keeping them outstretched. It appeared he was saying “What’s up?” or even “I’m here, come arrest me,” one of the witnesses said.
The officers claimed otherwise, citing a justification whose improbability has made it a figure of ridicule in protests over police use of force since the fatal shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, last year. “They said they shot him because was he was reaching for his waistband,” said De La Rosa’s brother Joe. “Why would an individual reach for his waistband if there is no weapon there?” said their sister, Serena. “That makes no sense.”
The officers were quickly cleared of wrongdoing by an inquiry carried out by their own commanders, as has long been standard for fatal shootings by the Bakersfield police department and the Kern County sheriff’s office, the two biggest law enforcement agencies in the county.
A review by the Guardian identified 54 fatal shootings over the past decade by Bakersfield police and Kern County sheriff’s deputies. At least 49 of the 54 were publicly ruled justified by panels of senior officers from the same department as the officers who fired. Four others appear to have been ruled the same, but no records could be obtained. An inquiry into the fatal shooting on Sunday is under way.
De La Rosa’s family is suing the officers involved and the city of Bakersfield over his death. In a recent interview, however, Bakersfield police chief Greg Williamson had trouble distinguishing the case of De La Rosa, who also went by the name Ramiro James Villegas, from others that have reached his desk:
Williamson said he was confident that when his officers use deadly force, “God be willing, that they use it appropriately in accordance with the law.” While declining to discuss individual cases, he recited Tennessee v Garner, the landmark 1984 US supreme court ruling on when police officers may shoot. “Do you people really think that we train to get this wrong?” asked Williamson. “We don’t – we train to get this right.”
Most residents agree. This 8,000 square miles of diverse terrain spanning the Tehachapi mountains to Sequoia National Forest is a ruby-red conservative bulwark within deep-blue California. Kern County’s residents, who have consistently supported an uncompromising law-and-order agenda in local administrations, voted 57% for Mitt Romney and 40% Barack Obama in the 2012 election. California’s statewide vote more than reversed those numbers.
“We would probably fit much better in the state of Arizona,” the county sheriff, Donny Youngblood said in an interview. Kevin McCarthy, the Republican congressman who swept to national prominence with other conservative “young guns” on the Tea Party wave of 2010, is Bakersfield’s voice in the US House of Representatives.
Earlier this year, as principal of the city’s North Beardsley elementary school, Chief Williamson’s wife, Aimee, had her students write messages to the police department on Law Enforcement Appreciation Day, a celebration created and encouraged by police unions. Children told officers: “Thank you for saving our city.” A mother of two young students wrote to the principal to say they would be staying home on account of the deadly beating that Kern County law enforcement officers had given her late partner in 2005.
“They still have an attitude here in this town that you have to support the police and whatever they do is correct,” said Kathleen Faulkner, a veteran Bakersfield attorney who has frequently taken on the department in court.
A recent history of deadly police shootings by Bakersfield police can be told through the experiences of a single officer.
Rick Wimbish, a Bakersfield native described by one person who worked with him as “a cop to his marrow”, is a department veteran of almost a quarter of a century. For several of those years, his father Mack, a retired state highway patrolman, was the sheriff of all Kern County. Both declined to be interviewed.
Wimbish, who receives a total pay and benefits package of almost $200,000 a year, instructs other officers and leads educational classes with young children in the county on the role of a police officer in the community.
Studies have found that most American police officers make it through entire careers without firing their service weapons. But Wimbish, 54, has been involved in at least four fatal shootings in two years, including that of De La Rosa, during which Wimbish deployed his Taser. None of the four men killed in these confrontations were armed with a deadly firearm themselves. One, a violent criminal, had a BB gun; another was holding a tire iron.
First, Wimbish was the most experienced officer to open fire during an operation to capture a fugitive one night in September 2013, which was bungled to deadly consequence in the parking lot of Bakersfield’s Four Points Sheraton hotel.
As they hunted for Justin Harger, a shooting suspect, Bakersfield police turned to Jorge Ramirez, who knew him. Ramirez, a 34-year-old former amateur boxing champion, had some criminal convictions but had begun to find a better path, according to his family. He had children now.
“For the first time in more than a few years, I saw him change,” said his father, Jorge Sr. “He was trying to be an example for his kids – to learn from his mistakes and be a working man.”
When authorities suggested Ramirez would receive favourable terms on a pending drugs charge in return for working as a confidential informant (CI), he agreed. He was directed by his police handlers to set up a dinner with Harger, the fugitive, who was nicknamed “Joker”.
Internal police files show Ramirez and a Bakersfield officer exchanged 34 calls and missed calls on the day of the meeting, along with multiple texts. As the hour approached, the messages became more furtive. “Yes no more texts,” Ramirez said at one stage, apparently concerned Harger would grow suspicious. Later still he said: “Were headed there now on frwy getting off California exit”. About 15 minutes later, they showed up as promised.
Then things fell to pieces.
Ramirez and Harger got out of their car. Taken aback by officers pouring on to the scene, Harger drew a pistol. In an intense gun battle that ensued, Harger struck one officer and was blown away by police fire. But the storm of bullets also swept up Ramirez. The officers he was assisting shot him 10 times – three times in the chest, three times in his left leg, and once each in the face, buttocks, hip area and shoulder. Then he was handcuffed and left face-down on the pavement.
Subsequent interviews conducted by Bakersfield police investigators suggest there was a lack of preparation and coordination among the police, who apparently had no plan for a confrontation. Three officers refused to answer questions about what happened.
Wimbish told investigators “he had heard that somebody had a CI that was passing on information but he did not know who that was.” He conceded that “he did not actually know why but he was assuming that Harger was going to be the passenger in the vehicle” rather than the driver.
Asked by investigators to rate Ramirez’s status, the officer who had exchanged dozens of messages with him in the hours before the shooting, insisted he was “definitely not a confidential reliable informant” and “more of a citizen informant”. Sergeant Eric Lantz even claimed he had been of the view that Ramirez “was playing us”.
Explaining why he had opened fire, another officer claimed to investigators that Ramirez, too, had reached for his waistband, despite his later being found to have no weapon.
Chief Williamson allowed three weeks to elapse before admitting that Ramirez had been working with the police. By then, the 32-year-old had been dismissed on the local TV news as merely the second man in a “suspect vehicle”. Even as he confirmed the true nature of Ramirez’s participation, Williamson blamed him for his own death. “He could easily have moved his hands above his head,” he told reporters.
The chief also assailed Ramirez for not warning his handler that Harger, who had been described as “armed and dangerous” during the “Most Wanted” segment on the previous night’s local TV news bulletin, would have a gun. “I don’t know that we had all the information that we would with a reliable informant,” said Williamson.
Shortly before Christmas, all the officers were again exonerated by an internal investigation. A seething anger among Ramirez’s tight-knit family about the way Jorge was used and then disowned by the police without retribution has only grown in the two years since.
But there has been no eruption of unrest in Bakersfield over the actions of Wimbish or other officers involved in the killings of De La Rosa or Ramirez. Even as protests have rippled out from Ferguson, few out-of-town demonstrators have journeyed north from Los Angeles to show solidarity.
Instead, a small but slowly growing number of families of people killed by officers in recent years now gather each Friday at dusk outside Bakersfield police headquarters, holding placards that invite drivers passing along Truxtun Avenue to honk their horns in support.
Not many of them oblige.
Scant local concern has been roused even as a string of BPD officers have been arrested in recent years. After the 2010 arrest relating to his vehicle crash, Stringer – the officer accused of manipulating De La Rosa’s body – was able to plead no contest to a charge of misdemeanour reckless driving and have charges of driving under the influence and hit-and-run dismissed. Police chiefs said Stringer stopped working at the department after his handling of De La Rosa’s body came to light, but refused to say whether he was fired. Stringer could not be reached for comment. His attorney did not return several requests.
A year after Stringer’s crash, his colleague officer Scott Drewry was acquitted of throwing a rock through the window of a business linked to a family dispute while on duty. In 2012, officer Albert Smith was jailed after not disputing charges of having sex with prostitutes, allegedly in his patrol car. In 2013, Detective Christopher Bowersox was sentenced to up to 10 years in prison after pleading guilty to possessing images of violent sexual abuse of children.
But Williamson rarely has to deal with significant dissent. At a community meeting last month in the Southern Oaks neighbourhood of the city’s affluent south-west, the chief lambasted the media and Obama over their actions during the unrest in Ferguson, as a dozen attendees in a near-empty hall quietly nodded in support.
Accusing the press of “blaming us for a lot of issues in our society, that really aren’t police issues or causation of police action,” Williamson asked: “Why is the police department responsible for shaping the culture of your neighbourhood?”
The days of federal agents needing to guard Weedpatch Camp from the violence of local law enforcement and vigilantes against “Okies” such as Steinbeck’s Joads, who had migrated to Bakersfield in search of work during the Great Depression, have passed.
But today’s generation of immigrants complain of hostility from a department that is unrepresentative of the people it polices. After rapid growth in Bakersfield’s population during the past decade to about 360,000, 46% of residents are Hispanic, 38% white, and 8% African American. Yet internal statistics show 74% of the roughly 390 sworn officers of Bakersfield police department are white, with only 21% Hispanic and less than 5% African American.
Chief Williamson dismissed as invalid any comparisons with Ferguson, whose police department is similarly unrepresentative. “It’s a much different system of justice than we have in this city,” he said. “We have been very engaging in our community, and we have discussion with people of all ethnic backgrounds.”
Decades after the dustbowl, the local economy is still not strong. The jobs market in Bakersfield, long centred around the energy industry, has suffered from the sharp decline in oil prices. Unemployment now stands at 9.2%, significantly higher than California’s 6.3% average and the national 5.5%. The $54,265 median income of Bakersfield households is down 12% on California’s statewide figure and the earnings of about one in five Bakersfield families place them below the $23,050 poverty line.
And with poverty comes crime. Bakersfield has one of the highest crime rates in the country, according to FBI data, reaching the 93rd percentile of American cities rated by criminality. The city’s murder rate is 75% higher than the national average and its robbery rate is 79% higher. Bakersfield’s burglary rate is more than twice that of the US average and its rate of motor vehicle theft is more than three times as high. In 2014 an assault or robbery involving a firearm occurred at a rate of just under once a day.
Word of the shooting came in calmly over the radio at around 8.30pm one night last month. “It’s on Palmacia Drive. There’s a victim. Six shots heard,” said the dispatcher. Sgt Brian Holcombe, a 10-year veteran of Bakersfield PD who has patrolled higher-crime sectors on the east side for most of his career, appeared unfazed. This was routine.
Neighbours peered from their windows as Holcombe, a 38-year-old Bakersfield native with bright blue eyes and a tight buzzcut, ducked under the police tape. “It might be sad,” he said as he reappeared. “It was a pregnant woman. I think it was an abdomen hit.”
By morning, it was confirmed: the unborn child of 22-year-old Ruthie Jean Franklin, who was six months pregnant, had been shot dead inside her. Police said they had found no motive and no suspect. But they were confident it was witnessed by a number of people.
Beside the cordon, Franklin’s 21-year-old cousin Michael Webb looked blankly into the patrol car’s flashing red lights. Shootings happen “like once every two weeks” in this known stronghold of the Crips gang, he said. “Sometimes it’s hectic. We have drive-by shootings and you can get hit. But, you know, you live where you live.”
Another shooting was already being reported over the police radio. Holcombe dashed back to his patrol car and drove some four miles north to another known Crips stronghold. A driver had escaped with only superficial wounds to an arm. He and a small crowd that had gathered claimed to know nothing.
“I bet you he knows who did it,” said Holcombe. “But would you tell if you know that’s how revenge is meted out?”
A nationwide Gallup survey last year found that among metropolitan areas, only California’s Fresno and Stockton-Lodi had a smaller proportion of residents than Bakersfield who said they “always feel safe and secure” in their city. Drug addiction – specifically methamphetamine – was cited repeatedly by police as the engine for the city’s crime problem.
One young drug user was arrested this month as Sgt Holcombe looked on. The 16-year-old boy had crawled out in front of traffic on a major intersection only to be rescued by two drivers. “They probably saved his life,” said Holcombe.
But at times the problem blights the department from within. Late last month Detective Damacio Diaz was indicted by a federal grand jury for accepting $15,000 in bribes from a methamphetamine dealer over the past three years and for stealing meth that he had seized through his police work.
According to the 16-count indictment, Diaz took money from alleged trafficker Guillermo Magallanes in return for giving him intelligence about police investigations and for protecting him from arrest and prosecution. Diaz also, according to prosecutors, bought meth from Magallanes for personal use.
A disturbing violent crime was at the heart of the third of four fatal shootings involving senior officer Wimbish. One Friday in March this year, Adrian Hernandez sexually assaulted a woman he was living with in south-west Bakersfield. According to police, he tied up her hands and tried to drown her in the bath, before dousing her and the house in a flammable liquid and setting a fire. Somehow, the woman escaped to safety.
When police caught sight of Hernandez that evening he began a high-speed chase, which ended with the 22-year-old crashing his car. Then, authorities said, he was fatally struck by gunfire from a group of officers, including Wimbish, when he got out of the car holding what appeared to be a semi-automatic handgun. It was, in fact, a BB gun.
Carolyn Fuentes, a young Latina resident who earlier this year held a pro-police rally in response to criticism from other protesters, said the peril in which Bakersfield officers are frequently placed is not sufficiently appreciated. “These people put their lives on the line every day, and I don’t feel it is fair they are all being disrespected and judged as a whole based on the corrupt officers,” said Fuentes.
Two other men shot dead this year by Bakersfield police officers were also carrying guns. Daniel Hernandez Jr was killed in July after allegedly pointing a gun at officers. Hernandez, 47, had been reported to be shooting a gun in a park and then fired at a car. Robert Burdge, a former corrections officer, was shot by officers from a Bakersfield PD Swat team after a standoff at a motel to where he had fled. He had allegedly shot another corrections officer in a struggle over a gun. While police said they recovered a firearm, they would not confirm it was brandished at officers.
Another fatal shooting this year, however, was more questionable. It featured a familiar cast of characters.
Jason Alderman’s family refuse to believe it, but police say he was trying to rob a closed Subway restaurant one Saturday evening in August. He was confronted abruptly by Bakersfield officers Wimbish and Garrett, both veterans of the deadly Ramirez sting operation. The pair was responding to an unrelated call-out when they spotted Alderman, according to police records.
Garrett, who was the passenger in the patrol car, is said to have got out and shot Alderman dead, firing “several rounds”. After days of vague and confusing statements the department eventually said Alderman, 29, had been carrying a black tire-iron and held it towards Garrett as if it were a gun. A photograph of the iron, helpfully laid out in the approximate shape of a rifle, was released. But unfortunately, police said, only one person apart from Alderman had seen what happened: Garrett himself. No surveillance footage existed; the sandwich restaurant’s cameras had stopped filming earlier in the night.
“To our knowledge there is no video,” a police spokesman said at the time, “has never been video, and we certainly don’t have any video in evidence.”
Five days after the shooting, however, investigators working for Alderman’s family made a discovery. There was, in fact, some surveillance footage of the incident. The police had quietly seized it from the Subway manager, who had been asked not to disclose what it showed. Police refuse to release the recording.
Sergeant Joe Grubbs, then the Bakersfield PD spokesman, said the shooting would be “highly scrutinised” and said: “We want to be scrutinised.” But within a month, Garrett and Wimbish had been cleared of wrongdoing by the department itself, which again investigated its own officers.
Sgt Holcombe, who has lived in Bakersfield nearly his entire life and has never had to fire his service weapon, said that officers are not just “willy-nilly taking people’s lives”.
“There’s a story behind each of these shootings. These officers have to have to make split-second decisions and carry this with them.”
Holcombe and his chief dismissed that repeat involvement in shootings could raise concerns. It is “wrong place, wrong time”, said Holcombe. “I don’t know what the chances are, this occurring to somebody,” said Williamson, but “we have other officers that have been in multiple shootings”.
Officer Timothy Berchtold, for instance, shot and killed three people in the span of less than two months in 2010. Two of those he shot were unarmed and accused of a strikingly similar offence – reversing a car they were driving towards Berchtold. One of them, Traveon Avila, was a 15-year-old boy.
All three shootings were ruled justified by the department. Berchtold continues to patrol the streets of Bakersfield.
Additional reporting by Jamiles Lartey and Ciara McCarthy. Additional video reporting by Grant Slater
This article titled “The County: the story of America’s deadliest police” was written by Jon Swaine and Oliver Laughland in Bakersfield, California. Video and photography by Mae Ryan. Design and graphics by the Guardian US interactive team, for theguardian.com on Tuesday 1st December 2015 13.33 UTC