Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Kern County, Calif., had a reputation for being one of the most law-and-order jurisdictions in the United States. Led by longtime tough-guy prosecutor Ed Jagels, the county earned the unofficial motto “Come for vacation, leave on probation.” In 2009, Jagels’s county Web page boasted that Kern had “the highest per capita prison commitment rate of any major California County.” Jagels would retire to great acclaim and praise, despite the fact that at least two dozen of the people his office convicted during the ritual sex-abuse panic of the 1980s and 1990s have since been exonerated. Kern County has also sent 26 people to death row since 1976, putting it among the top 25 in the country, and among the 2 percent of U.S. counties that account for more than half of America’s death row population.
Given all of that, it probably isn’t terribly surprising that Kern County is also home to the deadliest cops in the United States. From the Guardian:
Seventy-five years after Kern County’s leaders banned The Grapes of Wrath from their schools and libraries, complaining that John Steinbeck’s new book portrayed their policemen as “divested of sympathy or human decency or understanding”, officer Aaron Stringer placed his hands on the body of James De La Rosa without permission.
De La Rosa had just been shot dead by police officers in Bakersfield, the biggest city in this central California county, after crashing his car when they tried to pull him over. He was unarmed. Now the 22-year-old oilfield worker lay on a gurney in the successor to the coroner’s office where Tom Joad’s granma awaited a pauper’s funeral in the 1939 novel.
Stringer, a senior Bakersfield officer whose plaudits for once saving a colleague in peril had been overshadowed by his arrest for a hit-and-run while driving under the influence of prescription drugs, reached under the bloodied white sheet and tickled De La Rosa’s toes. Then, a junior officer reported to commanders, he jerked the head to one side and joked about rigor mortis.
“I love playing with dead bodies,” said Stringer.
It was only the most remarkable act in recent times by a police officer in this rugged territory, where law enforcement officers have this year killed more people relative to the population than in any other American county recorded by The Counted, a Guardian investigation into the use of deadly force by police across the US in 2015.
In all, 13 people have been killed so far this year by law enforcement officers in Kern County, which has a population of just under 875,000. During the same period, nine people were killed by the NYPD across the five counties of New York City, where almost 10 times as many people live and about 23 times as many sworn law enforcement officers patrol.
Kern County, in fact, has seen 79 police killings since 2005, or about 8 per year. That’s 0.9 police killings per 100,000 residents. By comparison, the city’s overall murder rate is 4.6 per 100,000, a figure right at about the national average.
There is, in fact, a pretty remarkable correlation between counties that produce a lot of death sentences and counties where cops kill a lot of people. Oklahoma County, Okla., for example, is second in the nation in both death sentences and per capita killings by police officers. San Bernardino County, Calif., is 11th in death sentences, and third in per capita killings by police. Clark County, Nev., is fourth in police killings, and among the top 50 in death sentences. Santa Clara County, Calif., is fifth in police killings, 19th in death sentences. It goes on like that:
Maricopa County, Ariz.: 6th in police killings, 4th in death sentences
Miami-Dade County, Fla.: 7th in police killings, 19th in death sentences
Dallas County, Tex.: 8th in police killings, 14th in death sentences
Riverside County, Calif.: 9th in police killings, 5th in death sentences
Tarrant County, Tex.: 10th in police killings, 27th in death sentences
Los Angeles County, Calif.: 11th in police killings, 1st in death sentences
Harris County, Calif.: 12th in police killings, 2nd in death sentences
San Diego County, Calif.: 13th in police killings, 10th in death sentences
The police killing figures are by rate; the death sentences are in raw figures. But the overlap is notable. There are more than 3,000 counties in the United States. But the 13 with the highest rates of police killings are not only all in death penalty states; they also all rank among the top 30 in death sentences meted out over the past 40 years. These 13 cities are wide-ranging in size (from Kern’s 875,000 people to Los Angeles’ 10 million), murder rate (from 9.1 in Dallas to 2.3 in San Diego) and demographics.
What does this mean? I pointed out in a post a couple of years ago that the counties that send the most people to death row also tend to be counties with histories of prosecutorial abuse and misconduct. (Jagels’s office in particular was regularly berated by appeals courts for bending — or outright ignoring — the rules.) District attorneys are the chief law enforcement officers within their judicial districts. They set the tone for the entire area. They’re also typically in charge of investigating officer-involved shootings and other allegations of excessive force. It isn’t difficult to see how when a DA takes a “win at all costs” approach to fighting crime, that philosophy would permeate an entire county’s law enforcement apparatus, from the beat cop to the DA herself or himself.