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Saturday, May 25 2013 10:00 PM

ROBERT PRICE: Infallibility has some real drawbacks

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    By Alex Horvath / The Californian

    Kern County Sheriff Donny Youngblood describes the action of David Silva clutching the neck of a sheriff's dog.

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By ROBERT PRICE, Californian editorial page editor

Kern County Sheriff Donny Youngblood slapped down critics of his department with such confident certainty at last week's news conference addressing David Sal Silva's fatal skirmish with officers, he may not want to hear this. He so authoritatively relegated the media to the role of irresponsible alarmists he might not be inclined to pay much attention anymore.

But the fact is, all of the criticism and cynicism about the manner of Silva's death and the subsequent extraconstitutional seizure of witnesses' video didn't simply materialize from the fertile imaginations of the cop-haters over here on Eye Street.

The Sheriff's Office has, to a great extent, brought this all down upon itself. The media's skepticism didn't come out of nowhere. There have been many past incidents, well documented by The Californian and others, of his officers acting badly, or of situations ending tragically when, at least from an outsider's perspective, they need not have gone that way.

It isn't all media fabrication.

Youngblood would hardly have been throwing his deputies under the bus to concede that there's almost always a lesson in these tragedies, a way that things might have gone better. He wouldn't have been unfairly casting doubt on his department's actions by suggesting that a review of response protocols, such as the dangerous practice of hog-tying, might be in order.

But he is giving no ground whatsoever. The response of those deputies was, he intimates, exemplary in every way.

Youngblood paints the community's justifiable concern in black and white. Cops good, critics bad. The witnesses in the Silva case were just like the media: cop-haters with an agenda. How can we believe any of them? Blanket blame-placing strikes me as a problem in and of itself but, sadly, it's one that concerns Youngblood little beyond the absolution it provides him and his deputies.

Does Kern County need a citizens' review committee of some sort? Of course it does, but even more fundamentally at this juncture, the sheriff needs to facilitate some dialogue between his department and the community to rebuild trust and repair frayed relations. The Sheriff's Office clearly has a public relations problem, and it's not a problem the media created out of thin air.

A trusting public is a supportive, cooperative public. And a community of supportive, cooperative residents is a community that's that much safer -- not just for ordinary folks but for sheriff's deputies too. "We want to go home at night, too," Youngblood has said on more than one occasion. That most basic and understandable of goals isn't achieved solely by being bigger, stronger and more decisive in battle. It's achieved, in large part, by laying down a foundation of trust and accountability.

Issues like disappearing video tend to detract from that sense of trust. Remember, almost two years before a witness's cellphone video of the Silva incident mysteriously disappeared, six crucial seconds of parking lot video of a deputy fatally shooting David Lee Turner in July 2011 outside a Bakersfield convenience store was found to be somehow missing.

Video documentation of these things will only become more common. It shouldn't be surprising that two bystanders were on hand and prepared to shoot video of the Silva incident. What's surprising is that only two bystanders pulled out their cellphones. The day is coming in this self-surveillance society when permanent digital evidence of officers' every move -- of everyone's every move -- will be catalogued somewhere.

Might as well get ready for it, Sheriff. Work with us here. Let's try to identify practices that are safer for everyone, cops and suspects alike. Of course, reflection hardly seems necessary when you're infallible.

Email Editorial Page Editor Robert Price at rprice@bakersfield.com.

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