Media Review | Killing County, Produced in by Colin Kaepernick, Brings Focus to Police Brutality

A bullet standing up right on a roadmap. The words "Killing County" are displayed to the left of it.
Media Review | Killing County, Produced in by Colin Kaepernick, Brings Focus to Police Brutality

The 3rd anniversary of George Floyd’s untimely demise in 2020 at the hands of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin recently passed on May 25th.

The incident, captured on camera and disseminated widely across the internet, sparked a nationwide outcry. According to a recent piece on NPR, after Officer Derek Chauvin knelt with his knee on Mr. Floyd’s neck for over 9 minutes and caused his death, “The following June (2021) — after jurors found Chauvin guilty of second-degree murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter — Hennepin County Judge Peter Cahill sentenced him to 22 ½ years in state prison. A federal judge later sentenced Chauvin to 21 years prison for violating Floyd’s civil rights. Chauvin is serving both sentences concurrently in a federal prison in Arizona.” But conviction of officers involved in violent altercations where there are grievous injuries or even death has not historically and is not even currently the norm.

The graphic nature and video footage of George Floyd’s death caused a national focus on police brutality and the critical need for transparency, accountable and reform of our “public safety” systems.

As the awareness spread of what happened to Mr. Floyd, as well as other cases, a clear picture began to form of all too consistent unfair and even racist systems of policing in the U.S.  This led to widespread protests in support of the Black Lives Matter movement – even materializing globally, as individuals sought to express solidarity against the systemic injustices perpetrated by law enforcement, particularly towards the Black community. This period, rife with emotion and occurring amidst the backdrop of the pandemic, shall forever remain etched in our memories.

Now that three years have elapsed since those pivotal events, what progress can we see that has been made in terms of holding police officers accountable when they engage in violent, unlawful and immoral actions? Although some headway has been achieved through the implementation and promotion of body camera initiatives, instances of excessive force and violence persist. However, the anticipated substantial decrease in such incidents remains elusive. Alas, in 2023, we find ourselves confronted with the same challenges that plagued us in 2020: police officers continue to evade full accountability for their acts of unwarranted aggression and brutality.

Looking back 3 years ago I find myself pondering several pertinent questions: Has substantial change actually taken place?

Another outgrowth of this focus on the Black experience in America was a movement to ensure that diversity and inclusion initiatives were implemented or bolstered in companies and organizations where they were already in place. Did the diversity and inclusion campaigns initiated by large corporations translate into tangible outcomes? Have law enforcement agencies successfully addressed and improved their training practices? Are they really holding themselves accountable for their actions? Furthermore, are we witnessing a decrease in incidents of violence, or do we continue to experience similar or even escalating levels of brutality? In earnest anticipation of witnessing progress and positive developments, it is disheartening to observe a lack of significant advancements in terms of police agencies’ accountability. Instead, we often witness out-of-court settlements, where victims are offered lump-sum monetary compensation, effectively silencing them regarding any issues pertaining to police misconduct. These practices hinder transparency and efforts to rectify systemic issues within law enforcement.

The Black Lives Matter movement has primarily focused on addressing the injustices faced by the Black community, as the Black community has borne a disproportionate brunt of law enforcement brutality. Nonetheless, it is crucial to acknowledge that individuals from various cultural backgrounds have also suffered from similar injustices and losses due to the actions of irresponsible law enforcement officers. Killing County, a compelling three-part documentary series, illuminates this disturbing reality within a small county located in Bakersfield, a town in central California. Within this jurisdiction, law enforcement has been implicated in numerous fatalities, yet the lack of accountability persists.

This thought-provoking docuseries, produced by renowned sports figure and activist Colin Kaepernick, serves as a powerful platform for the families of the victims unjustly killed by the Bakersfield Police Department (BPD).

Not only does the series exhibit exceptional direction, but it also provides focus to the families, who have long felt marginalized and unheard, with an opportunity to share their stories and convey the trauma they have endured in the face of police brutality within a largely rural area like Kern County. It is worth noting that Bakersfield serves as a significant hub for the farming and agricultural community, with approximately 92% of its population comprising hardworking Latinos. It is among the families of these Latino victims that instances of racist aggression and police brutality have been most prevalent. And the families of these victims are still actively pursuing justice for their loved ones who lost their lives at the hands of police officers.

The inaugural episode of the series delves into the compelling narrative of the Ramirez family, setting the stage for the entire story arc.

Central to this narrative is the tragic incident involving Jorge Ramirez, which garnered significant media attention. Ramirez found himself caught in a crossfire between the Bakersfield Police Department (BPD) and Justin Harger, resulting in his untimely demise. Although not officially recognized as an informant, Ramirez played an unofficial role in assisting law enforcement officials, namely Officers Patrick Mara and Lerry Esparza, in their efforts to apprehend the notorious criminal Harger.

Having shared a long-standing acquaintance since their high school days, Ramirez agreed to cooperate with the BPD, aiming to aid in the capture of Harger for his involvement in various unaddressed criminal activities. Ramirez harbored the hope that in exchange for his collaboration there would be a reduction of his parole sentence, affording him more quality time to spend with his daughter. Tragically, the ill-fated night on which officers attempted to apprehend Harger devolved into a poorly executed operation, culminating in the heartbreaking loss of Ramirez’s life.

Jorge Ramirez Sr. and Nicole Ramirez found the story of their son and brother’s death not making sense on how he was killed and why he was even there during the operation. After doing some more research, and obtaining text message records from Ramirez to the other officers involved in the apprehension of Harger, Nicole and her family discovered that Jorge Ramirez was an informant working with BPD to try and help law enforcement bring Justin Harger to justice. As a result of their initial research, the Ramirez family decided to hire their own attorneys to investigate what really happened during the botched operation. This led to the discovery that BPD never had any formal plans to bring Harger in, and instead they were careless with Jorge Ramirez’ life, putting it in harm’s way without preparing a completed game plan to apprehend Harger who was known to be violent. The Ramirez family ended up with a settlement from the city of Bakersfield for $400,000 because it was found that Ramirez’s death was avoidable, if not intentional.

Let us now direct our attention to Officer Lerry Esparza, a significant figure involved in the Ramirez case.

Prior to the incident, Esparza had served within the ranks of the Bakersfield Police Department (BPD) for a considerable period. However, following the Ramirez tragedy he made the decision to resign. And then Esparza’s name resurfaced in the media due to another violent incident while on duty and his involvement in yet another lawsuit, this time in Pasadena, CA, the hometown of this publication. The lawsuit, involving a sum of 3.2 million dollars, accused Esparza and his partner, Officer Zachary Lujan, of engaging in racial targeting and using excessive force during the arrest and physically violent encounter with Christopher Ballew. For further details on the Christopher Ballew case, Culture Honey has reviewed the documentary, Thorns on the Rose, which details what happened to Christopher Ballew as well as others at the hands of the Pasadena Police Department.

Unfortunately, Esparza did not face accountability for his actions during his tenure with the Bakersfield Police Department, which allowed him to be available for hiring by the Pasadena Police Department.

Instead of facing disciplinary action, he chose to resign and subsequently found employment within the Pasadena Police Department, where tragically he continued his violent behavior. Interestingly, following the Christopher Ballew case Esparza made an unsuccessful attempt to rejoin the Bakersfield Police Force. Presently, he reportedly remains employed by the PPD, specifically within the Air Support division, occasionally undertaking overtime shifts for events, even for events like the historic Pasadena Black History Parade.

The presence of an individual like Esparza within the Pasadena Police Department (PPD) raises significant concerns within our community, and there has been much conversation and even protest about issues like this in our city. It is deeply troubling to discover that someone with his track record is entrusted with the responsibility of serving and protecting the public. As journalist James Farr astutely points out in an article for the LA Progressive entitled, “Pasadena Police Settle Lawsuit for $3.2 Million”, the hiring process should undergo rigorous scrutiny, ensuring that individuals with such problematic past work histories are not rehired as law enforcement officers.

A basic Google search would easily reveal Esparza’s unsuitability for an on-duty officer position, highlighting the urgent need for a more thorough and comprehensive vetting process in law enforcement hiring practices.

The extent of unlawful behavior within law enforcement extends beyond instances of police brutality, as exemplified in the series by officers such as Patrick Mara and his association with Demacio Diaz. Diaz, once regarded as a hometown hero and respected member of the community, became entangled in a web of corruption. Both Diaz and Mara were tasked with working undercover for specific operations, but their prolonged involvement in criminal activities blurred the lines between their roles and the lifestyles they were meant to combat.

Diaz’s involvement in a narcotics-related bust shed light on his misconduct, as he failed to return the complete evidence to the department and instead retained some for personal gain, intending to sell it during his off-duty hours. Mara, too, participated in these illicit acts. Their actions underscore a fundamental breach of the code of conduct that officers are sworn to uphold, compromising their duty to protect and serve. Mara’s involvement in the tragic demise of Jorge Ramirez further highlights the disregard and negligence displayed by certain members of law enforcement towards the wellbeing of the public. It raises serious concerns about the selection process and ongoing employment practices within the Bakersfield law enforcement system. Officers such as Mara, with their questionable conduct, should never have been assigned to a case of that nature, let alone retained as active members of the Bakersfield law enforcement agency.

As the documentary series progresses, it unveils additional distressing accounts of misconduct within the Bakersfield Police Department (BPD), with victims like David Silva shedding light on the gravity of the issue.

David Silva, a 33-year-old man with a family, tragically lost his life through a brutal beating that occurred on a street corner in close proximity to both a residential house and a hospital the night of May 7th 2013.

Silva, who was experiencing a mental health episode due to his ADHD, had initially sought assistance at the Kern Medical Center. However, he was directed to another facility that could better address his specific mental health needs, resulting in his discharge. As Silva was being escorted out by a security guard, he crossed the street and fell asleep on the corner in front of a residential house, located across from the Kern Medical Center.

The security guard, concerned for Silva’s well-being, called upon law enforcement to help ensure his safe transition to the designated facility. Tragically, this decision marked the beginning of a harrowing night for Silva. Upon arrival, the officers chose to wake Silva abruptly, utilizing a sternum rub—a painful and aggressive method to rouse someone from sleep. Understandably startled, Silva instinctively responded with aggression, as anyone might when awakened in such a forceful manner.

Law enforcement officers then called for backup, leading to an escalation of the situation. Additional officers arrived at the scene in an attempt to detain Silva. In the process, they proceeded to handcuff and hogtie him, placed a spit bag over his head, seized a K-9 and resorted to using batons to repeatedly strike him until he ceased moving. Witness Sulina Quair, who happened to be in the parking lot at the time, captured the entire incident on video. She later recounted, “It looked like something took over their bodies as they all started to beat Silva to death.”

The tragic death of David Silva stands as a stark reminder of the severe consequences that can result from the misuse of force by law enforcement officers.

Shockingly, not a single one of the officers involved in Silva’s death was held accountable for their actions. In his quest for justice, Silva’s brother, Chris Silva, initiated an investigation to uncover the truth surrounding his sibling’s untimely demise.

Sulina, who had captured the incident on video, faced unwarranted repercussions when law enforcement contacted her and confiscated not only her phone but also those of her family members. Despite lacking a legal warrant, the Bakersfield Police Department (BPD) claimed the right to seize their devices. Donny Youngblood, the head deputy in charge at the time, held press conferences in an attempt to downplay the corruption within the BPD. To maintain silence and secrecy surrounding the incident, the Silva family was offered a settlement of $3.4 million.

Numerous other victims of police brutality have come forward, shedding light on the excessive use of force by the BPD. Tragically, individuals such as James De La Rosa, Jason Alderman, and Francisco Serna suffered similar fates as Jorge Ramirez and David Silva. This behavior fostered a culture where officers believed it was acceptable to act in an overly aggressive manner, as there were no consequences for their actions. Lawsuits became an avenue for spending taxpayer dollars, as the only recourse for these families was to settle out of court with monetary compensation. The officers in question faced no personal liability and their income remained unaffected by their misconduct. Consequently, instead of learning from their mistakes, these officers would return to work the very next day.

True changes within law enforcement will only come about when the actual officers responsible for these acts face jail time or personal financial penalties deducted from their salaries. Until then, the pattern will persist, with police officers evading full accountability for their unwarranted aggression and brutality. Killing County brings awareness and understanding into this dark area of our civic lives – and ultimately affects every one of us.