Crime & Justice

California attorney general to investigate Kern County, Bakersfield policing

FILE: Bakersfield police officers stand by outside during a murder investigation on July 8, 2003 in Bakersfield, California.
FILE: Bakersfield police officers stand by outside during a murder investigation on July 8, 2003 in Bakersfield, California.
David McNew/Getty Images

The state's attorney general's office has opened a civil rights investigation of two California law enforcement agencies after a series of deadly shootings — including the death of a 73-year-old man.

The two non-criminal investigations will look into whether the Kern County Sheriff's Office and the Bakersfield Police Department have shown a "pattern or practice" of violating state or federal law and could lead to demands for reforms. They will be conducted by the state Department of Justice Civil Rights Enforcement Section.

The department decided to investigate following complaints by people and community organizations. It also looked at media reports and spent more than a year reviewing information on officer-involved shootings and deaths of people in police custody, the office said in a statement Thursday.

"Excessive use of force and police misconduct erode and undermine the public's trust in our law enforcement agencies," Attorney General Kamala Harris, who heads the Department of Justice, said in the statement.

Harris's department has not reached any conclusions about misconduct by the two agencies. She said the investigations will be impartial and thorough.

"We look forward to working collaboratively with the Sheriff's Office and the Police Department, as well as with the community, to address any civil rights violations or other issues that we may find during these investigations," Harris said.

There was no indication of when the probes might be completed.

The Kern County Sheriff's Office will "fully cooperate" with the investigation, spokesman Raymond Pruitt said in an email.

Bakersfield police didn't immediately respond to requests for comment.

The most recent controversial shooting occurred earlier this month when a Bakersfield police officer killed Francisco Serna, 73.

Police responding to a 911 call about a man with a gun confronted Serna. An officer shot him after police say Serna refused to take his hand out of his pocket and stop walking toward officers.

Police later concluded that Serna was not carrying a gun but did have a dark-colored plastic crucifix.

Serna's family said he had dementia and would go on short walks in his neighborhood to help tire him out so he could sleep. The family has called for an independent investigation of the shooting.

Kern County stretches from the southern San Joaquin Valley east into the Mojave Desert. Bakersfield is the county seat.

Previous state civil rights investigations led to reforms of the Riverside and Maywood police departments.

AP reporter John Antczak in Los Angeles contributed to this article.