BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (AP) —
On Nov. 24, 2017, Robert Cruz Jr. biked north along Baker Street, on a quiet block straddling Bakersfield’s once-thriving old town and struggling new, restaurants interspersed with a rehab center and a prepaid phone store.
A little before midnight, two officers noticed that the 37-year-old Cruz didn’t have a front light on his bicycle. A patrol officer chased Cruz to a nearby yard. There, Cruz crouched behind a child’s play tunnel, and the officer struck his arm with a baton.
According to a police report, Cruz shouted “I didn’t do anything” twice before the officer struck again. The patrolmen arrested Cruz for assaulting an officer, resisting arrest and for the missing bike light. Before taking him to jail, an ambulance brought Cruz to the hospital, a bone sticking out of his skin.
Between 2016 and 2019, Bakersfield police officers used force that broke at least 45 bones in 31 people, according to an analysis of public records by the California Reporting Project. The city of Bakersfield released the documents under a recent California law that increases transparency in policing.
The records released include those cases that involved serious injury or death. A third of the time, injuries reported included one or more broken bones.
Besides Cruz, two other bicyclists stopped by patrol officers for code violations suffered broken bones during that four-year period. They also ended up at the hospital, one with head fractures, the other a broken leg.
Some of the 31 people were later convicted of serious crimes, but an analysis of police reports reveals that others had charges dismissed, or never faced charges at all.
While wrestling in a pile of blankets with a 57-year-old woman who was suspected of trespassing in a Greyhound station, officers broke her wrist. And when one man allegedly violated the city’s curfew in Martin Luther King Jr. Park, officers tasered and hit him with a baton, breaking his leg.
In all 31 cases involving broken bones, the Bakersfield Police Department determined that none of the officers involved violated departmental policy.
Breaking a bone is a brutal act, said Bakersfield Police Sgt. Robert Pair, a spokesman for the department. But it’s also not unusual.
“It’s the unfortunate reality that force is sometimes used in defense of officers and others, and that’s the world we live in,” Pair said. “I don’t think that that is an alarming number at all.”
The number of broken bones is disturbing to Stephanie Padilla, a staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California.
“I do think that is high, and I do think that is a really troubling number that one out of three (serious) use-of-force cases result in broken bones,” Padilla said. “It tracks what individuals in the community have shared with us.”
On Wednesday, the Bakersfield City Council unanimously approved $133 million for policing next year, an increase of $13 million. The meeting was raucous and at one point the chamber was cleared after members of the crowd chanted in support of a speaker critical of the police department. The budget hike raises the department’s share to 42% of the city budget and adds 28 police officers.
The council’s budget hearings are the latest venue for a public debate about the quality of policing in Bakersfield, where voters narrowly approved a 1% sales tax increase to boost funding for essential services three years ago.
The city pitched the sales tax as a public safety measure, but residents of Bakersfield still disagree about how best to keep the public safe. The Police Department has proposed hiring 100 officers within three years.
But it remains the target of a California Department of Justice investigation opened more than four years ago by then-Attorney General Kamala Harris. Demands for policing reforms — including defunding or even abolishing the department — accelerated during Black Lives Matter protests last summer.
“I think we stand on the precipice of a critical juncture, a critical moment here in Bakersfield and in Kern County,” said Traco Matthews, a local Black civic leader and chief program officer at the nonprofit Community Action Partnership of Kern.
Matthews co-chairs an independent committee convened by the City Council that has offered recommendations for police reform.
“Can we get to a place where use-of-force incidents, especially serious use-of-force incidents, are less and the public is still safe? And every citizen, every resident, feels like they are part of this family of Bakersfield being protected and served by BPD? Absolutely,” he said.
Among all of the cases released by the department, internal reports concluded that the force Bakersfield police used to cause a fracture was reasonable: each dog bite, every control hold, every physical strike and every strike of the baton. Using batons, officers broke bones in 26 people; once, an officer broke the baton.
Following every incident, the department applied a careful review process, Pair said.
“It’s not a carte blanche that you can use a baton, go out there and use a baton whenever you want to,” he said. “Each one is … scrutinized under the facts and circumstances of its own event.”
That scrutiny has layers. When a Bakersfield police officer uses force, the officer must report it to a supervisor, usually the sergeant on duty, according to the department’s manual. The manual then directs sergeants to ensure that the person injured receives medical treatment and to investigate the incident. Policy directs sergeants to examine the scene, review video footage, interview witnesses and talk to the injured person if they consent.
In Bakersfield, every sergeant also writes a report about any use of force. And every sergeant’s report must be reviewed by the watch commander, a lieutenant. Department spokespeople say that captains sometimes review use-of-force reports, too.
When the force used is deemed reasonable, that sergeant’s report may be brief, as in the case of Robert Cruz Jr. In that case, the sergeant’s description of what happened was five sentences long.
Officer Andrew Celedon reported that Cruz abandoned his bike when approached by a patrol car and ran for a nearby yard. There, he tried to jump a fence. Celedon pulled him down to the ground, where he curled up behind a play tunnel. When Celedon wrote up the incident, he emphasized the darkness in the yard and the possibility that Cruz could carry a knife, gun or weapons in his baggy clothes. Celedon stated he struck Cruz, who was crouched in a fetal position, with a baton.
Kevin Robinson, an instructor at Arizona State University’s School of Criminology and Criminal Justice and a 37-year veteran of the Phoenix Police Department, said the goal of an investigation should be to decide whether the force used was appropriate.
“Bakersfield in my mind has the right steps in place,” Robinson said of the department’s policies. “Supervisors should come out and review every use of force.”
Within two weeks, Sgt. Charles Sherman concluded that strike against Cruz was an effective use of force, necessary for self-defense.
Seth Stoughton, University of South Carolina School of Law associate professor, reviewed the Cruz report. Like others provided in response to a records request, the Police Department retrieved that report from incident tracking software sold to law enforcement agencies called BlueTeam. In it, Cruz is described as fleeing and resisting arrest, both legal conclusions offered without support.
Stoughton, who testified for the prosecution at former Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin’s trial for the killing of George Floyd, said the report was “woefully inadequate” to examine an individual event.
Good investigations of incidents like this are wide-ranging, he said. After-action reports should look back at what happened in detail and also look forward to offer ways to improve outcomes in the future, regardless of fault.
For the incident in which a Bakersfield officer broke Cruz’s bone, the sergeant’s report “does not have anywhere near the level of detail that any competent supervisor would demand to assess, even in a very cursory fashion, the incident being described,” Stoughton said.
“If you’re using it as one of many data points to get a bird’s-eye view, then maybe this is all you need,” he said.
According to Bakersfield Police Sgt. Christopher Bagby, who works in the agency’s Quality Assurance Unit, the department’s use-of-force working group uses BlueTeam data to examine the effectiveness of strategy and tactics.
Late in 2019, the Quality Assurance Unit also began randomized audits of the reports themselves. Pair said that the system will automatically alert a supervisor if one of the officers under their command is using more force than normal.
If a sergeant sees something potentially criminal, that goes to internal affairs. That department investigates citizen complaints and also begins its own inquiries.
Among the 31 broken bone cases released in Bakersfield, internal affairs investigated three, the only incidents where records show citizens complained. The internal affairs office cleared every officer in those three cases.
Police and experts say that a review process is not a disciplinary process. Rather, it’s a way for departments to see how they can adjust and improve. Reducing violence in a community includes reducing uses of force, Stoughton said. Professional agencies need to look at each incident and ask what they can learn.
“Sometimes the answer is there is nothing that we could realistically change here that would have any impact,” Stoughton said. “The agency can control whether officers are issued a taser, for example, or that the agency can control how long an officer’s shift is to see if they’re fatigued and making bad decisions.”
In 2017, Cory Joe Pearson fired a gun through the windshield of a car at his former girlfriend and her cousin, according to police reports. Bakersfield police tracked him to a Vagabond Inn.
When Pearson left his room for a smoke, one officer tackled Pearson to the ground in the motel parking lot. At the same time, another officer noticed Pearson “thrashing,” and struck Pearson with a baton twice, breaking his shin bone. Four years later, Pearson said he still hasn’t recovered.
“I’m in constant pain, always, because of it,” Pearson said by phone from the state prison in Lancaster where he is serving a 20-year sentence for assault with a firearm. “I can’t run, I can’t play sports,” he said. “I can hardly walk.”
The Bakersfield Police Department defends its use of force as judicious and skilled.
“We can’t do our job without use of force,” said Sgt. Lynn Martinez, who trains officers in how to use force properly. “Sometimes police officers will have to hurt people to protect themselves and others.”
Still, there’s a cost.
From 2016 to 2019, Bakersfield police officers sent an average of 304 people to the hospital per year following police encounters, an analysis of internal affairs reports shows. Officers and health workers decide where subjects of the use of force receive medical care, according to the department’s policies.
People injured by uses of force describe emotional and financial costs from an encounter with police.
Any use of force, even a relatively low-level use of force, is a significant event between a police department and the community, said University of South Carolina’s Stoughton, a former Florida police officer.
It’s “a really a significant government intrusion onto individual liberty and autonomy,” he said. “Of all of the aspects of policing, the use of force has probably the highest potential to be socially corrosive.”
Some people in Bakersfield say that they are afraid to call the police. One of them is neighborhood activist Christina Crompton. In 2017, Bakersfield officers set a dog on her cousin, Tatyana Hargrove, after mistaking her for a man.
In a poll conducted by the independent Bakersfield Police Department Community Collaborative, about one in five people said they did not feel comfortable requesting assistance from the agency in an emergency situation.
“There are just too many incidents,” said Traco Matthews, who co-chaired the collaborative. The reforms his group recommended to the City Council last month include that the department follow up on policy changes first proposed by the U.S. Department of Justice in 2004, diversify the force and hire an independent auditor. The council accepted the recommendations without comment.
Six years ago, about 5 miles south of where Hargrove was stopped by the Bakersfield police, Arturo Gonzalez stepped out of his house — and into another case of mistaken identity, also by Bakersfield police.
In January 2015, the Bakersfield Police Department sent four officers to Gonzalez’s house to perform a welfare check after his son, also named Arturo Gonzalez, called 911 “rambling, not making too much sense.” Records show police officers prepared for the younger Gonzalez to ambush them.
A 911 dispatcher called Gonzalez Sr., who said that his son wasn’t at the house; according to a transcript, the dispatcher then notified officers that the elder Gonzalez was coming outside to meet them. Video captured by a neighbor’s camera shows Gonzalez shuffling backward, arms raised, and lit by flashlights and a flood light in his driveway. After he knelt, officers knocked him flat, then beat and kneed the elder Gonzalez. Among his injuries were broken ribs.
“If this isn’t a serious bodily injury I don’t know what a serious bodily injury is,” said Thomas Seabaugh, a lawyer for Gonzalez. But Gonzalez’s case isn’t counted among the 109 cases between 2014 and 2019 the department released under the state transparency law.
After realizing that they arrested the wrong man, police transported Gonzalez to Mercy Southwest Hospital in an ambulance, handcuffed to a gurney. Gonzalez was not charged with a crime.
No broken bones are documented in the initial police report, said Lt. Ryan Kroeker, a spokesman for the Bakersfield Police Department, who added that “there were no obvious injuries.”
Gonzalez returned to Mercy, still complaining of pain, two days later. But it wasn’t until a week later, at his primary care physician, that X-rays revealed the extent of his injuries. After blows delivered by the officers, injuries diagnosed by at least three doctors included broken ribs, a damaged spine and torn tendons in his left shoulder.
Six years later, Gonzalez said he is still crippled with pain from the injuries and is still receiving care. The cost of treatment has continued to add up, from steroid injections to shoulder surgery. In late May, his doctor recommended another surgery on his back, Gonzalez said.
This and other incidents have also cost money for local taxpayers. Gonzalez brought a civil rights case against the officers, including one who was present but did nothing to stop the beating, and settled with the city in 2018 for $125,000.
From 2014 to 2019 the city paid out more than $1 million in 10 separate settlements for civil rights, excessive force and personal injury claims related to the police. During the same time period the city settled for an additional $1.525 million in seven wrongful death suits, also all related to the police.
Gonzalez said that he doesn’t go out much anymore because he’s afraid that the police might stop him.
It’s also hard to feel safe at home, he said.
“When I come outside of my house, I think about the attack,” he said. “And I think about police officers doing this to me.”
After decades working in heavy labor, Gonzalez planned to devote his retirement to art. His acrylic and oil paintings adorn the walls of his house. In his entryway, Pine Mountain in Ojai, California; on his dining room wall, a beautiful Mexican woman. A few more in the living room; others throughout the house. He started painting in seventh grade.
“For (painting) you have to be calm and peaceful,” Gonzalez said. “The pain is going to trigger you out of that.”
That’s why he says he hasn’t been painting recently. Sitting for long periods is arduous. It’s too hard to raise his arms.
Alexandra Hall, Noah Baustin, Lily Taylor, Eric Ting, Daniel Wu and Ying Zhao contributed to this report. Editing by Molly Peterson, Cheryl Phillips and David Barstow.