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Saturday, May 18 2013 10:32 PM

Kern's image may be taking a hit

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    Felix Adamo/TBC...The Bakersfield sign outside of the Crystal Palace.

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BY JOHN COX Californian staff writer jcox@bakersfield.com

The death of a man in custody following a prolonged struggle with Kern County Sheriff's deputies and CHP officers and the subsequent fracas over confiscated witness cellphones have gained international attention and raised concerns here that the incidents could tarnish the county's emerging reputation as a desirable place to live, visit and do business.

The May 8 death of 33-year-old David Sal Silva received back-to-back front page coverage in the Los Angeles Times and a staff-written story in the New York Times. An analysis of visits to The Californian's website shows the incident attracted huge interest from readers across the country and around the world.

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Gaining attention

News coverage of a Bakersfield man's death in custody May 8 has generated a flood of interest across the globe, evident in astoundingly high readership numbers registered at The Californian's website through Thursday.

According to Google Analytics, 384,396 people viewed a story posted at BakersfieldCalifornian.com headlined "Dad who died during arrest 'begged for his life'; witness videos seized."

The average amount of time visitors spent on the Internet page: 4 minutes, 32 seconds.

Referred to the story by social media and websites such as Reddit.com, the vast majority of the page visitors -- nearly 96 percent -- had never before visited the newspaper's website, Google Analytics reported.

The Californian's daily page-view average is between 25,000 and 40,000. By comparison, the number of page views on May 10 alone -- a day after the first big story of David Sal Silva appeared on the Internet -- was 229,073.

Number of people from selected locations who viewed the May 10 Californian article about David Sal Silva's death in custody:

New York 8,876

San Francisco 8,388

Los Angeles 7,755

Canada 30,249

U.K. 16,255

Australia 9,486

Germany 2,956

Source: Google Analytics through May 16, 2013

For longtime community leaders who have invested much of their careers in building Kern County's image, the incident is troubling at best.

"I think, short term, it would have an (economic) impact, because it does give the community a bad image," former county Supervisor Ray Watson said.

"I don't think there's any question" that news of Silva's death has hurt the county's image, said former Bakersfield Mayor Mary Shell.

"I can't see any way that it helps the community. It's just something we have to get through, and I am glad that the sheriff (Donny Youngblood) has enlisted the aid of the FBI in the investigation."

Watson said the damage may not last.

"I think that these kinds of things have happened in a lot of places around the country, and there are a lot of things forgotten after a period of time," he said.

"So, I'm not sure what it's going to do to Bakersfield's image long term because I think we've got other things that are continually brought up in the media with respect to air quality, in particular, that are kind of an ongoing image issue."

In any case, he said, the matter is "extremely serious."

"Whether it's forgotten in a few months or not doesn't make any difference if, indeed, excessive force was used ... and others stood by and watched it happen," he said.

From a business standpoint, said Richard Chapman, president and CEO of the Kern Economic Development Corp., there is reason to believe that companies considering moving to Bakersfield do not typically look at behavior patterns of local law enforcement.

He referred to a list of "site selection factors" that employers weigh when deciding where to relocate. That list of 10 factors, published by Area Development magazine, leads with highway accessibility, labor costs and energy considerations; it does not mention crime or law enforcement.

"The questions we get are related to cost of living, the tax situation, is it a pro-business climate?" Chapman said, adding that "it's too soon" to gauge the beating incident's full impact on the local economy.

Still, said Los Angeles-area brand consultant Derrick Daye, there are real costs associated with negative perceptions.

He said a company considering relocating here may think twice if negative associations with the county outweigh the positive ones. The same thinking would apply to employees deciding whether to take a job here, he said, or tourists deciding whether to visit Kern.

"In the context of place branding, which is what we call it, if you're in the middle of ... this chaotic moment here with the police and the brutality charges and making national news, that certainly is going to have an impact on your brand," he said.

"The trust factor is key for any brand. I mean, without that, you're in a quick decline," Daye said. He added that the full impact on Kern's brand won't be immediately evident, and that the most important perceptions will be formed based on how the sheriff's department handles the case going forward.

Silva, a father of four, fought with six deputies, a sheriff's sergeant and two California Highway Patrol officers who responded to a report of a possibly intoxicated man outside Kern Medical Center. He was struck by batons multiple times and died less than an hour later, in the early morning hours of May 8. The cause of death hasn't been determined. Sheriff's detectives later confiscated cellphone cameras used by witnesses to record the event. An uproar -- and the wide publicity -- followed.

The investigation into what took place is being conducted both by the Sheriff's Office and, at the sheriff's request, the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The Bakersfield Police Department even got involved, briefly, when Youngblood asked it to analyze the camera phones.

Not everyone is worried about the repercussions.

"Nobody in Kern County gives a damn what New York thinks. They don't give a damn what Canada thinks," former Kern County Sheriff Carl Sparks said Friday. He asserted that county residents are used to withstanding far-flung criticism of their air quality, heat and conservatism.

Other local leaders maintained that negative perceptions surrounding the incident do not come close to outnumbering the many positive perceptions about Kern County.

Cindy Pollard, president and CEO of the Greater Bakersfield Chamber of Commerce, said Silva's death does not overshadow recent positive attention on the county's economic gains from publications including the Wall Street Journal.

She said there are many strengths building up the county's "brand" -- its recreational opportunities, its culture, its schools -- even as certain areas of weakness do require action.

"I think (the beating incident) gets at the heart or the root of some things that need to be addressed," said Pollard, who called Silva's death a "very unfortunate incident.

"But that does not define Bakersfield."

What, if anything, should be done to repair the county's image is up for debate.

Daye, the L.A.-area brand consultant, said new leadership of the sheriff's department may be in order.

"You have to line up some real proof points that this isn't a way of life here," he said.

Shell noted, however, that the sheriff's job is an elected position and, therefore, it likely would be up to Youngblood to decide whether to step down.

For her part, Shell called for a high degree of transparency from the department throughout the investigation.

"As far as running the department, that's what Donny's elected to do, and the (county) supervisors are not elected to run the sheriff's department," she said. "So the buck kind of stops with him, with Youngblood."

"My feeling is, now, wait and see what the investigation turns up."

Watson expressed confidence in Youngblood's leadership. But depending what comes to light in the investigation, he said, the sheriff may need to make a "big public effort" to review the department's policies to restore trust.

If it turns out deputies acted inappropriately, Watson said, there may need to be a review by an outside party of the department's policies, discipline and training.

"All of those things come into play," he said.

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