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ACLU, Faith in the Valley say Department of Justice, Bakersfield Police reform plan not enough

Posted: 5:03 PM, Oct 12, 2021
Updated: 2021-10-13 18:09:00-04
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BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KERO) — In August the California Department of Justice announced an agreement with the Bakersfield Police Department about reforming their policing practices. The corrective actions were part of a five-year plan the police department has time to implement. But two local organizations say this is not enough.

Faith in the Valley and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed a motion with the Kern County Superior Court to intervene in the legal proceedings following the agreement with California DOJ and the BPD. The community leaders 23ABC spoke with said they’ve been down this road before and they don’t believe that the police department will truly change.

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But whether the motion gets granted or not there is a newly passed senate bill in California that may help with police practices.

“We’ve been working on this issue of policing since 2013. We have given the police department ample opportunities to change, to reform, to talk to community members, to lift up voices of people, and time after time after time they have kicked the can down the road, or give you access to their meetings and then completely ignore what you say,” said Josth Stenner, a community organizer with Faith in the Valley.

Stenner said that's why his organization and the ACLU filed the legal motion on September 28th to intervene with the legal proceedings following the announcement from California Attorney General Rob Bonta.

“As Attorney General, I’m committed to strengthening trust between our communities and law enforcement. That is a critical part of public safety,” said Attorney General Rob Bonta at the time. “Where there’s injustice, we must correct it. This agreement with the city and its police department will help make that happen."

The years-long investigation with the DOJ found that BPD failed to adequately enforce the law and the agreement is that they have a five-year plan for reform. Back in August BPD Police Chief Greg Terry said they didn't agree but are looking forward to the road ahead and honoring the agreement.

“We do not agree with the findings and the conclusions made by the DOJ, but what today was about was coming to an agreement without any finding of fault to really look forward to find a path forward to demonstrate that we’re a model agency," said Terry at the time. "That we’re professional. That we’re accountable, transparent, and connected to our community."

The DOJ investigation was initially launched in 2016 after multiple complaints and media investigations into BPD conduct, including the death of Francisco Serna, a 73-year-old man with dementia who was shot by Bakersfield Police who thought he had a gun. It was later determined it was a crucifix. Bonta said the investigation revealed that BPD failed to adequately enforce the law.

“The communities spoke out about a number of practices, including concerns around excessive force and other various misconduct. When communities speak out about injustice, it’s our job as leaders not to just listen, we must take action to correct it.”

And while both the ACLU and Faith in the Valley agree that BPD failed to properly police they don’t agree that the city and BPD will actually reform through the five-year plan presented by Bonta.

“We don’t think that either the DOJ or the Bakersfield City Police Council has the best interest at heart and is going to make a real good full faith effort to implement these reforms in a way that can actually prevent more OIS, in a way that is going to save lives,” added Stenner.

Now they are asking the court to listen to what they have to say.

“Basically when you move to intervene, you are basically asking the court to allow you to join existing litigation because you have a particular interest that is going to be impacted by how that litigation is resolved,” explained ACLU of Southern California attorney Stephanie Padilla.

Padilla said that this is important to make sure that community members have a seat at the table.

“The goal really is to ensure that the rights of the community members who have been impacted or may be impacted by police violence are really safeguarded and the way that we do that is by ensuring the way that these terms laid out in the consent agreement are interpreted and actually implemented, really help to achieve that end goal.”

Padilla said one of the reasons they were so quick to step in is because they have been down this road before with the BPD and did not see sufficient reform.

“BPD has tried to reform itself and hasn’t done so successfully. For example, back in 2004 the U.S. DOJ launched an investigation into BPD and issued a set of recommendations and it's our understanding that BPD started to implement some of those recommendations that were made.”

Padilla said that the BPD is one of several law enforcement agencies that contract with a private company called Lexipol – a public safety and training solutions company. She said once Lexipol implemented the policies things changed.

“Even though BPD started to make some of these changes, it sort of backtracked and sort of undid a lot of that once it implemented some of these Lexipol policies,” said Padilla.

23ABC reached out to the Bakersfield city attorney’s office for a response to the motion to intervene and Bakersfield city attorney Virginia Gennaro says they oppose it.

“There’s no reason to allow any of those individuals and or entities to intervene, this is well within the purview of the DOJ and the attorney general's office. In addition to the fact that the stipulated agreement allows for the ACLU to have a place at the community advisory panel that will be set up the Bakersfield Police Department,” said Gennaro.

If the ACLU/Faith in the Valley motion does not pass at the end of October, California Senate Bill 2 filed on September 30th is looking to provide the change when it comes to policing practices.

"The accountability division is going to investigate police officers for what they call serious misconduct and the police accountability board is going to make recommendations to the overall post-commission about revoking certification for police officers that they believe have engaged in serious misconduct,” explained Scott Tiedemann, managing partner Liebert Cassidy Whitmore

Tiedman said that with the bill police officers will soon be investigated for misconduct.

The legislation establishes nine broad categories of misconduct that are considered to be serious misconduct, including:

The impacts do not go into effect until 2023, but despite this, the ACLU and Faith in the Valley said they just want to make sure everyone’s voices are heard.

“I think if we’re given space, we can all work together to make Bakersfield a better city for everyone,” added Stenner.

The hearing for the ACLU and Faith in the Valley motion is set for October 21st at 8:30 a.m.