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Tuesday, May 14 2013 11:00 PM

Trust took a beating that night, too

By The Bakersfield Californian

Cooperation between law enforcement and the broader community is so vital to public safety that police and sheriff's departments across the U.S. typically devote money and resources to building those relationships. From Neighborhood Watch to McGruff the cartoon crime prevention dog, police and sheriff's departments promote their softer side to build trust and confidence among the general populace. When those efforts are effective, cops win the public relations battle -- and make strides in the big-picture battle.

Then something like the David Sal Silva beating comes along and much of what law enforcement has worked so hard for begins to erode.

From what we know, the beating itself should be of great concern. Nine officers, including six Kern County sheriff's deputies and a sergeant, participated in or witnessed the baton beating. Silva was pronounced dead within an hour but may well have died right there on the asphalt. Why didn't one of the officers call off his colleagues after Silva was clearly subdued? That's for a review panel to decide.

But it was the treatment of the individuals who saw the beating take place the evening of May 7-8 that could prompt future potential crime witnesses to take pause. Sheriff's investigators knocked on a witness's door at 3 a.m. -- about three hours after the incident near Kern Medical Center -- and then allegedly burst into the apartment when she opened it. They didn't have a search warrant (and wouldn't get one for another eight hours), and didn't have the occupant's permission to enter, which may or may not have been a violation of the law. The investigators then essentially held the witnesses captive, one for almost five hours and another for as long as nine hours, until the witnesses relinquished their cellphones, which the investigators believed contained video of Silva's beating.

Encouraging crime witnesses to come forward is tough enough without publicity from this sort of treatment. A code of silence permeates some neighborhoods to such a degree that investigators often find themselves stymied by bystanders who just "can't remember." Snitches get stitches, as the saying goes. Savvy officers build trust by establishing personal, face-to-face relationships, and many agencies promote anonymous tip lines that ease the fear of neighborhood repercussions.

Then something like this happens.

Kern County Sheriff Donny Youngblood has made some good calls over the past 24 hours. He shared the video contents of the witnesses' phones with the Bakersfield Police Department so that no one agency has complete control and responsibility for that evidence. And he asked the FBI to enter the investigation into what took place that night.

When the dust clears, perhaps he'll again take on the question of whether local residents would be better served by an incident review board that includes informed civilians. But Youngblood will also want to review that handling of the witnesses that night. His agency may well have broken the law. It almost surely lost some ground in its never-ending quest to build trust.

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