Kern County's sheriff announced Wednesday the department’s gang unit is shutting down, and one of the driving factors is limited funds.
“We’re running out of people and we’re unable to recruit and retain more than we’re losing,” Sheriff Donny Youngblood says. “So we’re getting smaller and smaller and this is probably just the beginning of more cuts to come.”
There are three deputy sheriffs, one senior deputy and one sergeant currently assigned to the gang unit, and according to Youngblood that just doesn't cut it.
“That’s not a task force,” he says. “You’re ineffective, so we’re going to assign them to task forces that have more people and have other agencies involved so we can at least address some of these issues.”
It’s not that there won’t be any deputies actively looking into gang activity, he says. The department just won’t have a specialized unit anymore. Two out of the three deputies in the gang unit are being reassigned to the FBI violent task force but are still working on gang activity.
Youngblood says this is the first specialized unit they are eliminating and he suspects there will be more to come.
“It’s just like going to the grocery store with $100 in your checkbook,” Youngblood says. “You can only spend $100 and that’s what we’re trying to do and we’re trying to spend it as wisely as we can.”
It’s up to the Kern County Board of Supervisors to decide how much money the sheriff’s department receives every fiscal year. Youngblood says he’s made it clear to the board the department needs more funds, but the board says the money isn’t there.
Out of the county's roughly $2.7 billion budget for the 2018-19 fiscal year, $117 million was allocated to the sheriff’s department. That's up about $4 million from the previous fiscal year. District 5 Supervisor Leticia Perez says it’s a “sizeable” portion and it’s pretty standard across the state.
Ryan J. Alsop, the county's chief administrative officer, says in an emailed response the sheriff’s decision to reassign three deputies to other units is “his to make, and is unrelated to any action taken by the Board.”
In a statement, Kern County District Attorney Cynthia Zimmerman says it’s "unfortunate" that limited resources prevent the gang unit from existing. The majority of homicides are connected to gang activity, she says, and her office will continue to devote resources to investigating gang-related crimes.
Perez says it’s more about the issues with the budget than not giving money to the sheriff’s department.There isn’t enough money in general, she says.
Kern County was in debt $44.6 million and last year the board brought that down to about $12.6 million.
“There’s such a crisis in the budget,” Perez says. “Where do we go with the money? It’s just tough. I don’t know what the future looks like.”
One of the main issues in the department is the low wages deputies make, Perez says.
“It’s a full blown crisis and one that keeps me up at night,” she says. “The issue is bigger than I can put into words.”
Kern County deputies are among the lowest paid in the Valley, Youngblood says, and that’s why it’s so challenging to recruit and retain deputies. One sergeant just resigned Wednesday to work for another agency, he says, and in the past five years the department has lost more than 150 deputies.
Deputies haven’t had a raise in about a decade, Youngblood says.
Deputies start at $25 an hour, says Richard Anderson, who’s a sergeant in the sheriff’s department but is speaking in his capacity as the president of the Kern County Law Enforcement Association. The low pay is one reason why more deputies leave to work for other law enforcement agencies in the area. Other Valley agencies offer 20 to 25 percent more, he says.
“Now that’s impacted the whole agency,” Anderson says. “Deputies don’t feel appreciated at work or with their elected representatives.”
Fewer applicants filter through the department now, Anderson says, and it’s not just because of the pay. He says younger generations are less willing to go into law enforcement.
Body camera videos of officers beating or aggressively yelling at people that go viral on social media reflects on a whole department's reputation, Anderson says. The tighter regulations and heightened scrutiny on law enforcement agencies make the job tougher.
“Young people see that and don’t want to get into this field,” Anderson says. "This job isn't for everyone."