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Bakersfield police allegations of deadly civil rights violations

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You’ve most likely heard by now that Bakersfield, California police officers beat a man to death and then confiscated the cell phone video of bystanders who watched in horror as the man cried for help. You can catch up on that story by watching the video clip embedded above.

This isn’t the first time the Bakersfield police have been accused of gross civil rights violations. The Department of Justice began a five year long investigation into Bakersfield police in 2003 “after the department was the subject of numerous lawsuits and complaints alleging excessive force and racial profiling,” writes the LA Times.

The investigation was prompted by another death in police custody. According to press reports, the man was placed into restraints that were at the time banned by the department:

A man who died in police custody over the weekend was hogtied when he resisted arrest, authorities said.

The order by Sgt. Tony Ennis to hogtie James Gary Nelson, 35, came after four officers put wrist and leg restraints on the suspect, who continued to kick and resist, Det. Mary DeGeare said.

The practice has been banned in the Bakersfield Police Department since 1995.

Authorities say they believe the man was high on methamphetamine when restrained and then stopped breathing.

No officers involved face disciplinary action, DeGeare said. All remain on active duty

A 2004 DOJ letter to the Bakersfield department expressed concern over a vague use of force policy that left too much room for officer improvisation.

The BPD's "Use and Escalation of Force Policy" does not adequately limit officers' use of force to those cases in which it is required to make a lawful arrest or protect an officer or third-party from an immediate safety threat….This ambiguity may lead officers to believe they are justified in using force in situations in which it would be unreasonable. 

Despite these concerns and the 2003 death in custody, the DOJ cleared the department of any wrongdoing in 2008.

In 2010, the DOJ again investigated the Bakersfield police, this time for killing a fifteen year old who had stolen a car.

If you want to make sure the police can't confiscate your video, download the New York Civil Liberties Union's film the police app, for both Android and iPhone. But before you do, check your state law to ensure you don't violate any statute. Here in Massachusetts, you are free to film the police as long as you don't do it secretly; secret audio recordings violate the state wiretap statute.

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.