Police Abuse

California Sheriff: Killing Suspects Costs County Less Than Maiming Them

Calculating comments come back to haunt Donny Youngblood as his re-election approaches.


Sheriff Donny Youngblood
Felix Adamo/ZUMAPRESS/Newscom

Kern County, California, Sheriff Donny Youngblood is in trouble—not for the misconduct of local cops but for his honesty about the financial consequences.

In a 2009 interview, Youngblood said it was better "financially" when police kill suspects or prisoners rather than injure or cripple them. "When a guy makes a bad shooting on somebody and kills them," he said, that costs "three million bucks, and the family goes away after a long back and forth. But when they injure a person, the county ends up having to pay out for life."

Wonder why the video is coming out only now? It is a small portion of an interview with the Kern County Detention Officer's Association, whose endorsement Youngblood was seeking. He got it, which suggests his comments did not trigger much outrage within the union back then. But Youngblood is facing re-election this year, and the law enforcement unions, whose members are angry that they haven't gotten any raises in the last eight years, have turned against him. They are backing a challenger, Chief Deputy Sheriff Justin Fleeman.

What Youngblood said is not a gaffe so much as a coldly presented observation. He says now that he was trying to get across the point that when a person lives through a violent encounter with police, it does not necessarily cost the county any less than if that person had died. He was responding to a question about loss of life as a result of police actions, he says, and he was not suggesting he preferred that deputies shoot to kill. He told the Los Angeles Times that in retrospect he thinks he should have framed his answer differently. Only a small segment of the interview was released, and the union has declined to release the entire interview.

Youngblood's 2009 comments are receiving attention across the country because law enforcement officers in Kern County and Bakersfield, the county seat, have a terrible reputation. In a 2015 series, The Guardian noted that police killed more people in Kern County than in New York City that year, despite the fact that the Big Apple has 10 times as many people.

In the 2009 interview, Youngblood was alluding to a $6 million settlement with the family of James Moore, who was beaten to death by deputies at Lerdo jail in 2005. One deputy was convicted of murder and another of manslaughter.

While that incident happened before Youngblood became sheriff, there have been other examples of horrible law enforcement behavior since then. Kern County has paid at least $38 million in settlements of 20 lawsuits since 2005, according to The Guardian.

The release of the Youngblood video does not necessarily mean the sheriff's election will focus on law enforcement misconduct. Fleeman's main themes seem to be improving and expanding police coverage and getting those raises for deputies. He does not support marijuana legalization, but in a recent radio interview he said he has come around on medical marijuana after a relative was prescribed some to alleviate the side effects of cancer treatment. Like many police officers in California, Fleeman blames his community's crime problems on reduced penalties and increased parole opportunities, both of which were approved by voters via ballot initiatives.

Fleeman also complains about "good ol' boy" behavior and favoritism under Youngblood's regime. In that same radio interview, he said he was asked in 2011 to investigate whether any officials perjured themselves when testifying about Moore's death. He said there was "definitely something" to the accusations but did not go into detail.