Kern County Deputies Under Fire

When sheriff’s deputies participate in an officer-involved shooting, they are automatically placed on administrative leave pending the outcome of an internal investigation into whether the shooting was within policy.

Now the Kern County Sheriff’s Office is conducting an administrative investigation into last week’s death of 33-year-old David Sal Silva.

But the seven deputies involved have not been placed on paid administrative leave.

Officials of the department wouldn’t explain why.

“We’re following the same protocol, as far as the administrative process is concerned, that we’d follow in similar-type incidents,” was all that sheriff’s spokesman Ray Pruitt would say about the issue.

The seven deputies and two California Highway Patrol officers tried to take Silva into custody early Wednesday morning after law enforcement received a report of a possibly intoxicated man outside Kern Medical Center, according to the sheriff’s department.

Silva struggled with them, deputies said. A canine was deployed, batons were used and Silva, 33, was pronounced dead at KMC less than an hour later after experiencing trouble breathing.

Witnesses have said Silva appeared to die right in front of them, minutes after officers struck him several times with batons.

The coroner’s office, which reports to Sheriff Donny Youngblood, said Friday that the cause of death hasn’t been determined and is pending toxicology and microscopic studies. Those studies could take as long as four months.

The CHP has said nothing about the role played by its officers. A spokesman said Monday their names won’t be released.

With the sheriff’s department investigating its own behavior in a high profile case, questions have been asked about an outside investigation.

But there was no indication Monday that outside agencies are involved — at least not yet.

A spokeswoman for the FBI Sacramento field office, which has jurisdiction in 34 counties, including Kern, said as a matter of policy, the bureau does not confirm nor deny its involvement in active investigations.

Typically in such cases, said Gina Swankie, investigations begin in the local agency’s internal affairs division.

Nick Pacilio, a spokesman for the California attorney general’s office, said in general terms, when an investigation by a local agency is not sufficient, the next step is usually the county district attorney’s office.

“A DA can ask the attorney general’s office to take on a case because there’s a conflict of interest or a perceived conflict of interest,” Pacilio said.

When that happens, the AG’s office will take the case if it agrees a conflict exists. It will decline when it disagrees, he said.

There’s long been disagreement in Bakersfield about whether local law enforcement agencies can effectively police themselves following officer-involved deaths.

Some, like local attorney Kathleen Faulkner, have long advocated that independent commissions conduct reviews following significant police incidents.

Faulkner and others have questioned whether officers can be objective in reviewing the actions of fellow officers when the outcome may adversely affect people they’ve worked with for years.

Opponents argue citizen-review boards or independent commissions may endanger officers by causing police to second-guess their decisions when split-second thinking is required. They also argue that untrained citizens don’t have the background needed.

Many agencies outside Kern County use an outside agency — sometimes the local prosecutor’s office, sometimes another police department — to review or even conduct the investigation.

The Orange County Sheriff’s Department, for example, keeps its hands off the main investigation. The lead investigation is always conducted by the prosecutor’s office. But local police agencies have always said they are fully equipped to handle incident reviews internally.

CHP Officer Robert Rodriguez said that agency is conducting a standard administrative investigation since there was an in-custody death. There was no third party investigating the incident, he said Monday.

The Sheriff’s Office Pruitt said the deputies involved had the following years of service in the sheriff’s department:

* Sgt. Douglas Sword, 13 1/2 years;

* Deputy Ryan Greer, 4 1/2 years;

* Deputy Tanner Miller, 4 1/2 years;

* Deputy Jeffrey Kelly, four years;

* Deputy Luis Almanza, three years;

* Deputy Brian Brock, 1 1/2 years;

* and Deputy David Stephens, 5 1/2 years.

The seizure by deputies of cell phones that witnesses used to record the incident has also led to discussion regarding the witnesses’ Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable search and seizure, and their First Amendment right to publish the video they collected.

Melissa Quair’s boyfriend was one witness who had taken video of the incident and at 3 a.m. Wednesday — just hours after the incident — two sheriff’s detectives arrived at her home to confiscate the boyfriend’s phone.

Quair said the detectives pushed open the door and shut it behind them and stood in front of the door, blocking the entrance to the apartment.

“They used more force than was needed and I told them that they didn’t have permission to say who could go in or out of my house,” Quair said.

Later in the morning, Maria Melendez, mother of Quair, returned to her daughter’s house in response to a request from detectives. She was immediately confronted by the same two detectives who told her she had to turn over her phone.

Quair was concerned for her mother’s health when she saw the way the detectives approached her mother’s car and demanded the phone.

“My mom is disabled and has a lot of doctor and medical numbers stored in her phone,” Quair said. “But the detectives didn’t care and they told my mom to write all her contacts down on a piece of paper and while she did they watched her like hawks.”

Sheriff Youngblood has asked the public to remain patient while the investigation is ongoing and has said videos from the phones will be released.

Posted in Mark Truppner.