Column: Is the Kern County sheriff an out-of-control cowboy — or a lost cause?
All my Bakersfield friends warned me before my interview with Kern County Sheriff Donny Youngblood that the guy was a runaway cowboy from a Clint Eastwood western.
Everything in my first few moments with the man seemed to confirm this.
His office is a vast room filled with dusty artifacts from Kern County law enforcement history and memorabilia from his 50-year career with the department. A huge framed photo of his Quarter Horse Harley is in sight of his impressive desk. Behind his chair hangs a wooden American flag with a blue stripe meaning Blue Lives Matter — counting the police, too.
“The last time I had an LA Times reporter on a story,” he said as we both hit record on our respective electronic devices, “she was wearing wranglers and cowboy boots. I said, ‘Now I realize you’re going to make a hit story with me, but you’re going to make me a hero in my district.’ … She really was a nice girl.”
Did I mention that the Kern County Sheriff’s Department Headquarters is two doors down from a Lutheran church and down the street from a pub? Even “Blazing Saddles” didn’t have the cojones to make up details like the.
I visited Youngblood in late spring before the June 7 primary to see how the judiciary works in one of Red California’s last strongholds.
It’s not nice.
The Guardian dubbed Kern County law enforcement agencies “America’s deadliest police force” back in 2015. That led to a 2020 settlement between Youngblood and the California Department of Justice that forced his agency to “embark on the reform process that will benefit all residents of Kern County.” to then-Atty. General Xavier Becerra.
Taxpayers have paid more than $20 million in settlements for wrongful killings, prison searches and other miscellaneous abuses involving Kern County lawmakers during Youngblood’s 15-year tenure as chief counsel. Earlier this year, the American Civil Liberties Union blasted him and other Central Valley sheriffs for their “destructive” alliances with Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Still, Youngblood ran unopposed for his fifth term this year, making him one of the longest-serving sheriffs in all of California. In the 2018 election, the Kern County native not only punched out Justin Fleeman, his top vice president, he then fired Fleeman for “dishonesty” and allegedly leaking confidential information during a campaign speech.
But over the course of our hour-long conversation, I didn’t see Youngblood as a malicious good old boy drunk on his own power, as my friends claimed. I saw a lost cause.
I have seen a man who knows his time is up and the world has moved on – and against him.
“The world is changing,” Youngblood sighed early on in our chat. Stocky, with thinning gray hair and a walrus mustache, he speaks in a tone that’s more friendly neighbor than conspiracy-obsessed uncle.
“We used to be 70 percent conservative Republicans in Kern County,” he said. “Today, I think it’s probably 56%.”
In fact, it’s 36% of registered Republicans — and Democrats are just two percentage points behind. Go to the mountains, Ma Joad.
“It’s changed so dramatically,” he added a few minutes later. “The things we used to shoot people for, we now quote with a ticket. … That’s not a bad thing.”
Youngblood fired off a few verbal shots at the usual California conservative canards – Proposition 47, Los Angeles County Dist. atty George Gascón and recently recalled San Francisco Dist. atty Chesa Boudin, the left’s supposed demonization of law enforcement.
But he was also surprisingly clear about the biggest problem facing his MPs:
The life leader of the Kern County Sheriff’s Department said his team was severely understaffed at a time when they couldn’t afford it. Last year, he asked school districts where his deputies had an on-campus presence to terminate their contracts because he needed to reassign them. Some of its substations cannot provide 24-hour coverage to the tiny communities they serve across a sprawling county.
He knows what the problem is – his department has a bad reputation. But he doesn’t blame the Liberals for that. It’s the fault of the public employee unions that represent his employees, who have fought him over pay rises for years, he said.
One of them, the Kern County Detention Officers Assn., released a video of Youngblood telling an audience 12 years ago during the 2018 sheriff’s race that killing a suspect was an “absolutely” better scenario than him in turn crippling to save taxpayers millions of dollars in settlements. The comments earned him national contempt, and Youngblood told me the statement could have been “worded better.”
“When you spend 13 years as an association or union telling your employees how bad it is to work here and spreading that across the state of California, you can’t just flip that switch,” Youngblood complained. He admitted that Kern County “has some bad things. We have bad air quality and we have, you know, we have some negative things. But when you’re spreading the narrative that this is a negative place to work and a negative county to live in, it’s hard to get past.
His big push to recruit LA County Sheriff’s Deputies who failed to comply with COVID-19 vaccine mandates garnered 10 applications. At the time of our interview, none had been hired.
“We want people with clean backgrounds, not people with a history of negative behavior,” the sheriff said.
That was the problem for Youngblood, however. According to his own statements, he has fired between 75 and 100 MPs for misconduct. About seven years ago, he installed speedometer trackers in all squad cars after two of his deputies hit and killed innocent bystanders in separate incidents while they were driving at over 80 miles per hour. An investigator was arrested last month for being under the influence of and possession of meth
However, he insisted that his department’s comparison with the California Department of Justice in 2020 reinforced his and his troubled lawmakers’ reputation as a lawless, murderous force.
“If I have an officer who you believe killed someone and violated their constitutional rights, then why haven’t you charged him?” He said he told investigators. “You have absolute authority and responsibility to oversee the sheriff’s office. Why didn’t you do that?”
“I can’t speak for the Justice Department investigators,” Youngblood claimed a few minutes later, “but I think they realized we’re not as bad as they thought we were.”
Towards the end of our conversation, I told Youngblood that he reminded me of the character of Tommy Lee Jones in No Country for Old Men: an old sheriff who knew he was in another world and was ready to check it out. Youngblood laughed at my assessment, but was more interested when I asked him about the biography of Tiburcio Vasquez that he kept with his Wild West memorabilia.
The Californio robbed people across the state in the decades following the Mexican-American War before being hanged for murder in 1875. White society considered him a bad hombre; Vasquez saw himself as a revolutionary fighting against an unjust system.
“I like a good bandit,” Youngblood said when we hung up. “Some bandits are better than others. Your purpose of being a bandit may be justified in your opinion. … Some bandits are on their own, but they are so fascinating that they almost become heroes to you for getting away with stuff.”
Game respects game I guess.
https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2022-07-08/column-donny-youngblood-kern-county-sheriff Column: Is the Kern County sheriff an out-of-control cowboy — or a lost cause?