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Saturday, May 18 2013 10:00 PM

ROBERT PRICE: Has good-ol'-boy corruption seized the Kern County Sheriff's Office?

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    Robert Price is The Californian's editorial page editor. Email him at rprice@bakersfield.com.

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By The Bakersfield Californian

The Kern County Sheriff's Office is out of control. That's one conclusion many people will draw based on the events of the past two weeks and in the context of recent years. We won't know whether that's a fair characterization until we get some answers, but it should grieve us all that the possibility is even on the table.

The current impetus for this, of course, is the death of David Sal Silva, a 33-year-old Bakersfield man who was rousted from his sleep on a patch of grass near Kern Medical Center at about midnight the night of May 7-8 and beaten or restrained by as many as nine baton-wielding officers, one with a dog, from the Sheriff's Office and the California Highway Patrol. The investigation into Silva's death and our confidence in the KCSO's ethical fortitude were then compromised by the disappearance of video evidence from a witness's confiscated cellphone.

These, therefore, are all fair questions:

Was it necessary for deputies to beat Silva so thoroughly and violently that -- pending the coroner's confirmation on the cause of death -- it killed him?

Does the department's less-lethal protocol for detaining an uncooperative suspect have any options that come before repeated blows with batons?

Silva apparently sought help or refuge at the county's Mary K. Shell Mental Health Center and was turned away a little while before his fatal confrontation. Do deputies have any meaningful training in recognizing and dealing with mental illness?

Investigators' warrantless, barge-through-the-door seizure of two cellphones said to contain video of the beating raises questions about personnel's understanding of the Fourth Amendment as it applies to unreasonable search and seizure.

The witnesses who shot the video say they had checked before investigators arrived to make sure both confiscated phones did indeed contain video images, but Sheriff Donny Youngblood admitted a few days later that only one phone contained video evidence; the other did not.

If the witnesses are being truthful -- and they didn't accidentally erase the video themselves -- we have to ask if Sheriff's personnel really had the gall to knowingly destroy evidence that might incriminate deputies -- and with an increasingly cynical public watching, no less, wondering if they would dare do so.

Given the possibility that someone in local law enforcement would willingly compromise an investigation in such a blatant and ham-handed fashion, is it fair to ask whether the coroner's office -- a division of the Sheriff's Office -- can be trusted to make an honest and impartial determination about cause of death, the victim's toxicity and other relevant circumstances?

If Silva's death were an isolated event, we might not feel this collective alarm. But the department's recent track record seems like enough reason to withhold benefit of the doubt. Consider the case of Rodolfo Medrano, an amputee who couldn't leave his wheelchair but was deemed so potentially threatening that, when he pulled a knife out of his waistband and started rolling toward deputies, they took him down. Or the case of David Lee Turner, who swung a bag containing two cans of beer in a deputy's direction and paid with his life.

Then there are the nonfatal ethical lapses, too many to name here, from stealing cash from the wallets of drivers who've been pulled over, to allegedly subjecting a woman to a "deviant" strip search in her own home. Does the KCSO have a discipline problem? A training problem? Or is this a reflection of the candidate pool these days?

When Youngblood first ran for sheriff, he had tremendous support within the department. Now it seems fair to ask if an undercurrent of good-ol'-boy corruption has taken root so deeply that he's helpless. The good, honest deputies who still represent the vast majority of the KCSO deserve better than this. So do the people they serve.

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

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