Kern Wrestles With Its Soaring Homicide Rate
Rising crime rates in major metropolitan cities have been in the news, putting the spotlight on district attorneys who’ve embraced progressive criminal justice policies. But cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco aren’t the only ones with a problem. Kern County in California’s conservative Central Valley has a safety dilemma of its own — murder.
The homicide rate in Kern was 12.7 per 100,000 residents last year, the highest in the state. Homicides in Kern have outpaced every other California county since 2016. Its largest city, Bakersfield, has shattered records for the past two years. In 2020, there were 45 homicides. By late November of this year, there were already 57. Bakersfield has been ranked one of the top 10 most dangerous cities by SafeWise. KGET started a homicide tracker for the county in 2015.
Local politicians are reluctant to discuss the issue, according to CalMatters.
“CalMatters made multiple attempts to reach the Bakersfield mayor and all five Kern County supervisors. None returned calls. Kern County Board of Supervisors Chairman Phillip Peters’ chief of staff said he would not comment, and Bakersfield Mayor Karen Goh’s staff said in November she was traveling and too busy for a 15-minute interview on two consecutive record-breaking years of violence in her city.”
Law enforcement officials are eager to speak. They say Kern’s homicides are fueled by warring gangs, including the largest posses in California’s prison system. Delano is run by the norteño prison gang, whose members wear red. McFarland is run by the sureño prison gang. They wear blue.
“It’s kind of a cut-off area,” Delano Police Chief Tyson Davis told CalMatters. “It’s a gang border. Gang activity has its peaks and valleys, kind of a roller coaster.”
This may be a conservative, rural enclave. But Davis still thinks progressive policies are to blame. He points to state prison realignment created by AB 109 in 2011. He also blames Prop 47, which reclassified some felonies to misdemeanors, and Prop 57, which expanded parole, sentencing credits, and prosecutions in juvenile court. Studies dispute the idea that these policies are to blame for a rise in crime.
There’s also a money problem. In 2018, voters rejected a one-cent countywide sales tax. Sheriff Donny Youngblood says the money was needed to recruit and retain deputies. The sheriff department’s gang unit was later shut down and the narcotics unit was cut in half. That same year, Bakersfield voters approved their own one-cent sales tax for public safety. Youngblood says it caused a drain on KCSO as many employees left to join Bakersfield PD.
Could gang mediation hold the key? Over a decade ago, Monterey County was struggling with turf war violence. Police agencies and nonprofits mediated a ceasefire and the county’s murder rate went down.
At this point, residents might be willing to try anything. Violence has diminished quality of life in Kern County and in cities like Bakersfield.
“What we’re seeing is that people don’t value human life,” District Attorney Cynthia Zimmer told ABC News in August.
And so, the homicide tracker ticks on.