BAKERSFIELD, Calif. — In 2019, homicides in Kern County declined for the first time in four years.
"We were so encouraged," said District Attorney Cynthia Zimmer.
But 2020 has changed that. Now, homicides have reached an all-time high across the county.
"Historically, chiefs of police, sheriffs don't take credit when the homicide rate goes down, because they know next year they're going to have to explain why it went back up." said Sheriff Donny Youngblood.
In 2019 there were 99 total homicides in Kern County. This year, we've seen 136 so far, that's an increase of 37 percent compared to last year.
"Well I'm really disappointed about the numbers this year and the loss of life." said Zimmer. "That's something that is very sad and, again, disappointing."
Historically, 2018 was the deadliest year ever in Kern County with 114 homicides.
Zimmer said pinpointing a cause is hard to do, but there are some factors she believes are adding to the violence, like a rise in our population.
"When your population goes up, the amount of violence will go up statistically." said Zimmer.
She also said gang tension are high. In Kern County, law enforcement says gang violence accounts for nearly half of all homicides and Zimmer believes this year with stimulus checks, Employment Development Department fraud and the early release of inmates, it's created the perfect storm for violence.
"The money has gravitated into the hands of gang members, so they're flush with money. Drug sales are up. Gun possession is up. And those things, arguments over drug sales and possession of guns, lead to homicides." said Zimmer.
Sheriff Donny Youngblood said there was no real turning point this year that indicated the number of homicides would increase, but said this year we saw shootings with multiple victims. He believes the pandemic is partially to blame.
"People are locked in, they're staying at home. That can't be good for people getting along. I mean you have to be able to get out. You can't spend your time with just one person or two people or three people all the time, so we know that that's a factor." said Youngblood.
He said a lack of funding has made it hard for the Sheriff's Office to suppress gang violence before it happens. At one time, the KCSO Gang Unit Task Force has 20 people in it, but to save money, many of those positions sat vacant. Before it was eliminated in 2019, there were only three officers left in it.
"It is pretty traumatic to have that many homicides in a community this size. It really demonstrates the violent crime, the violent type of people we have in the community." said Youngblood.
The Bakersfield Police Department hasn't seen a spike in homicides this year within their jurisdiction. So far this year, the department has had 41 homicides compared to 36 last year. Despite that, they said they pay close attention because they know what happens around the county can impact them.
"Two rival gangs going at each other, that tends to be a common one we'll see a spike in violence. It's definitely something we pay attention to, try to figure out the causation try to figure out the people involved in this try to figure out community partnerships to hopefully work on this from different ends to stop this." said Lt. Nathan McCauley who is in charge of the robbery and homicide unit at BPD.
Beyond their efforts to slow the violence, D.A. Zimmer and Sheriff Youngblood said they both have concerns about the lasting effects of the pandemic and how it can shape our youth moving forward.
"Children that haven't been in school, that haven't been able to socialize with other children, play, do the things that children normally do... I think there's a heavy price to pay for that." said Youngblood.
While there are concerns about the effects in the years to come, local law enforcement reiterates that it will take a collective effort from people around the county to make a lasting change.
"People care, but there's just a lot going on right now. People are having to deal with teaching their own children. They can't go to school. It's a hard time right now, but we're going to get through it. I think we will turn a corner." said Zimmer.
The Bakersfield Police Department said as of December 11, 2020 they had closed 23 homicide cases from 2020 by arrest or case clearance. The Kern County Sheriff's Office said as of December 15, 2020 they had closed 41 cases under the following criteria:
- Arrest of at least 1 suspect (for homicide)
- Homicide was deemed justified
- Active warrant for the arrest of a homicide suspect
- The primary suspect in the case is deceased
- The case was rejected by the District Attorney's Office