Department of Justice settles with Kern County Sheriff’s Office over civil rights violations, Chain | Cohn | Stiles cases

December 30, 2020 | 5:00 am


A settlement has been reached between the California Department of Justice and local law enforcement departments after an investigation into civil rights violations and excessive force allegations, some of which stem from Chain | Cohn | Stiles cases.

The settlement agreement requires the Kern County Sheriff’s Office to enact an extensive list of reforms over the next five years aimed at ensuring the department protects citizens’ constitutional rights and treats individuals with respect and dignity, according to The Bakersfield Californian reports. To see the list, please scroll to the bottom.

The four-year investigation determined KCSO had engaged in a pattern of constitutional violations involving improper use of force, unreasonable searches and seizures and inadequate management. The Department of Justice also alleged the Sheriff’s Department violated state law in its use of deadly force and its handling of civilian complaints. The settlement requires more than a dozen changes to the Sheriff’s Office over the next five years, with an independent monitor to ensure those changes take place.

While the investigation shined yet another light on the ongoing civil rights violations by local law enforcement, it’s hard to imagine the settlement will lead to real change, Chain | Cohn | Stiles managing partner David Cohn told media. The law firm has filed numerous wrongful death, excessive force, and civil rights lawsuits against local law enforcement department resulting in tens of millions of dollars in damages for clients.

“I don’t think it means anything,” Cohn told The Bakersfield Californian. “I don’t think it’s going to have any meaningful impact with respect to how the Kern County Sheriff’s Department handles excessive force issues within the department … Do you see any of the political leaders, do you see any of the supervisors saying to the sheriff, ‘we want meaningful reform, we are tired of paying out on these claims? It’s business as usual. Nothing is going to change.”

The local office of the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation also commented as follows: “This is not going to be an overnight, ‘we’ve entered into this consent decree and now all of a sudden things are going to be better in the next year or two.’ There is going to be this long road ahead to ensure we are going to see the change we want to see.”

 

INVESTIGATIONS

More than five years The Guardian — a renowned British national daily newspaper that also covers issues in the United States — unveiled its five-part series that examined the use of deadly force, rough justice, sexual misconduct cases and other issues involving “America’s deadliest police” of Kern County. Among the cases highlighted were many of those involving wrongful deathpolice misconduct, sexual misconduct and civil rights cases over the years prior handled by the attorneys at Chain | Cohn | Stiles.

“Police in Kern County, California, have killed more people per capita than in any other American county in 2015,” according to The Guardian’s report. “The Guardian examines how, with little oversight, officers here became the country’s most lethal.”

The Guardian’s series was part of a project called The Counted, highlighting the number of people killed by police and other law enforcement agencies in the United States throughout 2015, “to monitor their demographics and to tell the stories of how they died.” Why was this necessary? According to The Guardian, the U.S. government had no comprehensive record of the number of people killed by law enforcement at the time, and still doesn’t. And this lack of basic data has been glaring amid the protests, riots and worldwide debate set in motion by fatal police shootings.

Why focus on Kern County? The series tackled the issue of how police officers in Kern County are reportedly responsible for killing more local residents per capita than in any other county in the country — about 1.5 people per 100,000 residents.

Among the cases highlighted by the publication included:

  • David Sal Silva, who was killed on the night of May 7, 2013. Silva was asleep in front of a home in east Bakersfield, across from Kern Medical Center when several law enforcement officers arrived on scene and proceeded to use unreasonable and excessive force in striking Silva with batons several times all over his body, while he screamed for his life and repeatedly begged the officers to stop. After being repeatedly beaten, bitten and hog-tied, Silva stopped breathing. Shortly after midnight, Silva was taken to Kern Medical Center, where he was pronounced dead. Chain | Cohn | Stiles filed a civil rights lawsuit in connection with the wrongful death of David Silva. On May 4, 2016, a settlement was reached for $3.4 million.
  • David Garcia, who was shot to death in January 2015 by Kern County Sheriff’s deputies while leaving his house unarmed. Deputies were called to the house to assist on a suicide attempt call. A settlement was reached in 2018.
  • James Moore was beaten to death by several deputies from the Kern County Sheriff’s Department while housed in central receiving downtown Bakersfield jail. On behalf of his family, Chain | Cohn | Stiles filed suit. Three deputies were prosecuted by the Kern County District Attorney’s Office for their roles in James’ death. The case settled for $6 million.
  • The series also highlighted three deputy-involved fatal crashes. In all three, Chain | Cohn | Stiles has filed claims and lawsuits on behalf of their families. Ultimately, the lawsuits led to reformed driving practices on the part of KCSO deputies. Those cases include:
    • Daniel Hiler and Chrystal Jolley, who were killed in December 2011, when Kern County sheriff’s deputy John Swearengin struck and killed them as they pushed a motorcycle across Norris Road. Swearengin was traveling at more than 80 mph in a 45-mph zone, without activating his emergency lights or siren. The case settled in March for $8.8 million.
    • Nancy Garrett, who was killed in September 2014 in Oildale when a Kern County Sheriff’s Office patrol car operated by Deputy Nicholas Clerico struck and killed her. The California Highway Patrol’s Multidisciplinary Accident Investigation Team (MAIT) found Deputy Clerico at fault in the crash, and the CHP report recommended that a vehicular manslaughter charge be filed against the deputy.
    • Larry Maharrey, who was killed when Kern County Sheriff’s Deputy Marvin Gomez abruptly made a left turn against a red light onto Airport Drive in Oildale directly into Maharrey’s motorcycle. Maharrey was unable to avoid the collision with Deputy Gomez’s patrol vehicle, and died as a result of the crash. The family, represented by Chain | Cohn | Stiles, and County of Kern settled the lawsuit for $3.8 million.

Then in 2016, the California Attorney General’s Office and the FBI launched investigations into Kern County Sheriff’s Office and the Bakersfield Police Department.

But this wasn’t the first time a Bakersfield police department had been investigated for an alleged pattern of excessive force. In 2003, the U.S. Department of Justice launched what would become a four-and-a-half year investigation after receiving numerous complaints of deadly and non-deadly excessive force and discriminatory policing methods. In April 2004, that department suggested policy changes in a 19-page letter to the department and Bakersfield Police Department began making those changes including some in its use-of-force and officer-involved shootings policies. In 2008, the federal department reviewed those changes and announced the BPD hadn’t stepped over any constitutional lines.

Still, claims and lawsuits against local law enforcement alleging misconduct, civil rights violations, and police brutality persist.

 

REFORMS

A list of reforms required under a settlement agreement between the California Department of Justice and the Kern County Sheriff’s Office are as follows:

  • Revise use of force policies to prohibit maneuvers that have a substantial risk of causing suffocation and require deputies to intervene when excessive use of force is taking place.
  • Modify canine policies and training from “find and bite” to “find and bark” and limit off-leash canine deployment only for armed suspects or those wanted for a serious felony.
  • Inform public about all officer-involved shootings and deaths in custody.
  • Require supervisors to investigate all uses of force.
  • Improve use of force training to include de-escalation techniques and bias.
  • Meet with community advisory panel to receive input.
  • Require deputies to state reason for an investigatory stop or detention as soon as possible.
  • Require deputies to state a valid reason under the law for a consent search and secure a supervisor’s approval for any search of a home.
  • Provide dispatchers with crisis intervention training and establish deputies who are preferred responders to individuals in a mental health crisis.
  • Ensure timely access to police services to all individuals regardless of ability to speak English.
  • Develop a recruitment plan for attracting workforce that reflects diversity in Kern County.
  • Broaden efforts to participate in community engagement efforts.
  • Conduct a biennial community survey measuring public satisfaction with policing.
  • Establish a clear definition for a civilian complaint.

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If you or someone you know is injured by law enforcement, injured in an accident at the fault of someone else, or injured on the job no matter whose fault it is, contact the attorneys at Chain | Cohn | Stiles by calling (661) 323-4000, or fill out a free consultation form at chainlaw.com.

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THE GUARDIAN SERIES

The wrongful death case of David Sal Silva

May 18, 2016 | 7:41 am


On the night of May 7, 2013, David Sal Silva fell asleep in front of a home in east Bakersfield, across from Kern Medical Center. Several law enforcement officers arrived on scene and proceeded to use unreasonable and excessive force in striking Silva with batons several times all over his body, while he screamed for his life and repeatedly begged the officers to stop.

After being repeatedly beaten, bitten and hog-tied, Silva stopped breathing. And shortly after midnight, Silva was taken to Kern Medical Center, where he was pronounced dead.

These events and those that followed after this night made international news, including the wrongful death lawsuit filed by Chain | Cohn | Stiles on behalf of Silva’s family in 2013, to the settlement reached in May 2016.

Below is a chronological order of events and media coverage in the death and civil case of David Sal Silva.

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‘BEGGING FOR HELP’

Early reports from law enforcement officials claimed officers struggled with a man in his 30s for eight minutes in front of a home on the corner of Flower Street and Palm Drive in east Bakersfield. Officers used batons and a K-9 unit before officers noticed the man was struggling to breath, called an ambulance, which rushed him across the street to Kern Medical Center emergency room. He would die shortly after.

The man was David Sal Silva, 33, a father of four.

Local media soon after reported a total of seven Kern County Sheriff’s Office deputies, including a K-9, and two California Highway Patrol officers arrived to the scene. They struck Silva with batons, released the K-9 on him, took him to the ground, restrained him and handcuffed him.

Immediately, witnesses stepped forward and described the incident.

“I watched a man deliberately murdered in my face,” one man who did not want to be identified told KBAK/KBFX Eyewitness News. “I see an officer and the K9 dog, with a man detained on the ground, and the man was screaming for help … They were just sitting on him. And the guys, they were holding him down and punching him, too … He wasn’t resisting. He was begging for help, and begging for his life.”

Besides witness statements, media also reported audio and video documented the beating.

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CIVIL RIGHTS VIOLATED

Surveillance video obtained by KERO-23 News after the beating death showed Silva being repeatedly beaten with a stick while more law enforcement officers arrive.

A 911 call, too, helped document the incident.

“There is a man laying on the floor and your police officers beat the (expletive) out of him and killed him,” the caller tells dispatchers. “I have it all on video camera. We videotaped the whole thing.”

“He was like a piece of meat,” the caller later told Los Angeles Times. “We were telling them: ‘He’s dead. You guys already killed him.'”

Details also emerged of how officers took witness cell phones that contained videos of officers beating Silva, hogtying him, lifting him and dropping him twice. Witnesses described how they were essentially harassed and held kept captive inside their own home by officers until they released their phones, without a search warrant being presented. Officers promised to return phones the next day, but were told when they inquired about their phones that the Sheriff’s Department was keeping the phone until the investigation was over.

At the same time, the Silva family reached out to and obtained the representation of Chain | Cohn | Stiles.

“I have two grieving parents and one grieving brother who want to see the body of their son and brother,” David K. Cohn, managing partner of Chain | Cohn | Stiles told news media. “But we will get to the bottom of this and I ask the sheriff’s department, once again, what are you hiding?”

The public feared a cover up by law enforcement officials was in the making, media reported. Chain | Cohn | Stiles would plan to file a federal civil rights complaint on behalf of the family.

Meanwhile, Silva’s family mourned his death.

“I can’t believe this happened,” David’s father Sal Silva told The Bakersfield Californian at his vigil, sobbing while kneeling down and touching the blood stains left on the sidewalk from the incident. “My son was a family man who loved his kids and family and in the back of my mind I still hold on to the possibility that the body we haven’t seen, might not be my son.”

The beating death of David Silva brought back memories for many of the infamous Rodney King beating, in addition to other high-profile deaths of minorities at the hands of law enforcement. The coverage would continue for years.

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PHONES & THE FBI

Fears that police were attempting to cover up details of the beating death of David Silva grew as Kern County Sheriff Donny Youngblood revealed that video evidence expected to be found on one of two cell phones confiscated from witnesses was not present on the phone.

The phones were handed over to the Bakersfield Police Department for examination, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation was also called upon for a “parallel investigation.”

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PROTESTS & LOST TRUST 

The beating death of Silva at the hands of police, subsequent phone confiscation, missing videos and other civil rights violations resulted in protests throughout Kern County.

Protesters stood in front of the Kern County Superior Court and held signs that read, “protection of our rights” and “stop police brutality.”

“I believe in my heart that someone has to investigate this and find out why it happened and why it’s been happening, please, just give my brother justice,” Chris Silva, David Silva’s brother, told The Bakersfield Californian.

On May 20, 2013, attorneys for the witnesses who had their phones confiscated and returned by investigators released video footage that showed the final moments of Silva’s life as he screamed while officers held him down.

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‘ACCIDENTAL’ DEATH 

On May 23, 2013, Sheriff Donny Youngblood called the death of David Silva “accidental” due to heart disease, according to a department he leads, the Kern County Coroner’s Office. Youngblood also slammed media for sending “shockwaves all across the United States” in the case.

“They’re trying to say he died of natural causes,” David Cohn told The Bakersfield Californian. “Who would believe that?”

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CLAIMS, LAWSUITS FILED

In June 2013, Chain | Cohn | Stiles on behalf of the Silva family filed wrongful death and federal civil rights claims claim against the nine officers involved in Silva’s death, Kern County Sheriff’s Department, California Highway Patrol, Kern County, and the state of California.

The complaint sought damages on behalf of David Silva’s four young children, his significant other, his parents and his brother, for the loss of love, affection, society, service, comfort, support, right of support, expectations of future support and counseling, companionship, solace and mental support, as well as other benefits and assistance of David Silva.

“David Sal Silva was a loving young man who cared deeply for his family and his four young children,” David Cohn said in a statement to media. “On May 7, 2013, David died as a result of unreasonable and excessive force used by nine law enforcement officials, who repeatedly struck him with batons and hog-tied him despite his numerous cries for help. Those cries will forever be heard by his family, and in particular his four children, who will now have to grow up without their father. While this lawsuit will certainly not undo what happened, my hope is that it will serve as a catalyst for serious change amongst local law enforcement agencies. It is time that we put this longstanding ‘strike first, ask questions later’ culture to rest once and for all.”

A month later, local media described inconsistencies between information provided by Kern County Sheriff Donny Youngblood and information found in the Kern County Coroner’s autopsy report, including the use of the hogtie restraint. The tactic has been banned altogether by law enforcement agencies, including the Bakersfield Police Department and the Los Angeles Police Department.

Cohn stated the manner by which Silva was restrained may have played a role in Silva’s death by causing “positional asphyxiation.”

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NO CRIMINAL CHARGES

In April 2014, Kern County District Attorney Lisa Green announced that her office would not be seeking criminal charges against the law enforcement officers involved in the death of David Silva.

“This is the reason we need an independent advisory panel evaluating these types of cases,” David Cohn said in a statement at the time. “Kern County District Attorney’s Office personnel work with these agencies every day, and they’re the ones in charge of prosecuting cases for them. Apparently, the way it works in Kern County is that unless they catch the officers red-handed, nothing will happen. It appears that they look for ways not to prosecute.

“Given that we do not have an independent panel in place to investigate, that’s the reason we filed a lawsuit in this case on behalf of the Silva family. Through this lawsuit, we believe the truth will come out. We have the ability to question these officers under oath. We’ll be more thorough in this investigation than any investigation that the Kern County District Attorney’s Office has done thus far. We won’t just rely on the investigative reports prepared by the Sheriff’s office, which are self-serving, one-sided versions of the events leading up to David Silva’s tragic death.”

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ONE-YEAR ANNIVERSARY 

Dozens chanted for justice in downtown Bakersfield on the one-year anniversary of Silva’s death, including representatives from Chain | Cohn | Stiles.

“We remain committed to obtaining justice on behalf of David and his entire family, especially his four children, who will be without a father for the rest of their lives,” attorney David Cohn said on the date. “The road to obtaining justice will be a difficult one; however, we are confident that in the end, the truth will prevail and justice will be done. This case is certainly about David Silva and about what happened to him, but it is also about much more than that. It is about changing the culture of local law enforcement in this community, and holding law enforcement officers who use unreasonable and excessive force accountable for their actions.”

Protests and rallies would continue throughout Kern County.

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CRIMINAL INVESTIGATION 

In late October, the U.S. Attorney’s Office and Civil Rights Division determined there was not sufficient evidence to sustain a federal criminal prosecution of officers involved in the death of David Sal Silva, which must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt, and the investigation was closed.

“To maintain the public’s trust and fulfill the high obligations undertaken by all law enforcement, it is critical that we diligently evaluate such allegations,” said U.S. Attorney Benjamin B. Wagner. “We undertook a careful evaluation of the evidence in this case, and we appreciate the assistance we received, particularly from our partners in the Federal Bureau of Investigation. I extend my condolences to the entire Silva family for the loss they suffered with the tragic passing of Mr. Silva.”

The Silva family now looked to the civil courts for justice.

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PROTESTS FOR CHANGE

In the months and several deaths at the hands of police throughout the United States — Michael Brown in Furguson, Miss. and Eric Garner in New York — sparked protests and riots nationwide. In Bakersfield, police shot unarmed Ramiro James Villegas (James De La Rosa) in November 2014, which helped advance the chants for more accountability locally. In Kern County, the Silva family led the charge.

“Police brutality is an issue here and we won’t let it go away,” Chris Silva said at a December 2014 rally.

In March 2015, hundreds of family members, friends and supporters of people who have lost loved ones in confrontations with local law enforcement took to the streets of Bakersfield in a march that revisited the scenes of some of the deaths, including the scene of the death of David Silva.

“I’m here to support the Silva family and all the other families who have lost loved ones because of mistakes made by the police,” Chain | Cohn | Stiles attorney Neil Gehlawat told The Bakersfield Californian. “We’re not saying all police officers are bad people,” Gehlawat said. “But on occasion, police officers cross the line, and when that happens it’s important the officer be held accountable so that it doesn’t happen again to another family.”

In July, the Kern County District Attorney’s Office announced it would be reviewing all officer-involved shootings resulting in injury or death, and all uses of force resulting in death, for all law enforcement agencies throughout Kern County. Protesters contended the DA’s office has already shown that it cannot provide truly independent oversight of the Bakersfield Police Department and the Kern County Sheriff’s Office.

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‘AMERICA’S DEADLIEST POLICE’ 

In December 2015, The Guardian — a renowned British national daily newspaper that also covers issues in the United States —unveiled its five-part series that examines the use of deadly force, rough justice, sexual misconduct cases and other issues involving “America’s deadliest police” of Kern County.

“Police in Kern County, California, have killed more people per capita than in any other American county in 2015,” according to The Guardian’s report. “The Guardian examines how, with little oversight, officers here became the country’s most lethal.”

Among the cases highlighted by The Guardian was the death of David Sal Silva, and other Chain | Cohn | Stiles civil rights and wrongful death cases. The series featured how the brutal tactics of officers in Kern County have ended lives, cost the public millions, and prompted claims of a police force out of control.

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TRIAL 

In March 2016, a federal judge refused to dismiss most claims, including those involving allegations of excessive force and wrongful death, in the lawsuit filed against Kern County in the death of David Silva.

“This is a resounding victory for us because the judge ruled in our favor in almost all of the claims, both federal and state,” attorney Neil Gehlawat told The Bakersfield Californian. “We’re very pleased with the judge’s ruling in that respect, and believe his ruling is consistent with the evidence in the case.”

Chain | Cohn | Stiles worked together on the civil case with the Law Offices of Dale Galipo, as a lead trial attorney. The trial was set to begin in U.S. District Court in Fresno on May 12, 2016.

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SETTLEMENT

On Wednesday, May 4, 2016, a settlement was reached for $3.4 million.

“The settlement today, nearly three years to the date of Silva’s death, is a vindication of a three-year campaign by the Silva family for justice, which brought national and international media attention to police brutality in Bakersfield,” Chain | Cohn | Stiles said in a statement announcing the settlement.

Attorneys from Chain | Cohn | Stiles and Law Offices of Dale Galipo hosted a press conference for media on May 5, 2016, along with Silva’s family. You can watch the complete press conference here.

“This case is now over, and this settlement is a bittersweet end to a long journey to achieving justice,” said attorney Neil Gehlawat during the press conference. “It’s bitter in that David is not here with us, and he is not here today to be a father to his children, to be a brother, to be a son. But it’s sweet because we know that the money that we’ve obtained in this case is going to go a long way to helping David’s children secure a bright future.”

 

* Editor’s Note: Neil Gehlawat is no longer an attorney with Chain | Cohn | Stiles *

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