How is state policy impacting safety?

Rebecca Neipp

News Review Staff Writer

As the dust settles from last week’s harrowing threat of a shooter on the loose (see related story, above), officials are grappling with how to maintain public safety when one of the most important tools for peacekeeping has been taken away.

For two years now the highest-ranking law enforcement officials and Kern County have been warning the community about how the California legislature’s “realignment” (an initiative that closed state prisons in order to save money) would threaten public safety. In 2011 the massive release of prisoners across the state made no provisions for front-line defenders to deal with that challenge.

But that reduced capacity also left the criminal justice system with some difficult decisions in terms of which inmates would remain locked up and which would be squeezed back onto the street. All but the most serious violators are now released. And even repeat offenders — including those whose crimes were related to drug abuse and theft — are back only days after arrest.

“There was a time when one of the ways we dealt with drug addition was through incarceration,” said Police Chief Ron Strand. The lock-up helped to sober up users and put them on a path to recovery through a variety of available programs.

One of the many who fell through the cracks of a compromised safety net was Sergio Munoz, who killed one woman, injured three others and fired his gun through the streets before leading officers on a high-speed chase that ultimately led to his own death.

During Munoz’ rampage, he was out on bail for charges of felony possession of ammunition and drug paraphernalia. In May this year, the drug-related charges against him were dismissed.

In the fallout of the shooting of at least four victims, members of his family have publicly expressed their dismay about the impact drugs had on him.

“We are still in the middle of our investigation, so I cannot comment on Munoz specifically. But I can say that we have seen how drugs negatively alter someone’s demeanor. Drug abuse can make a person more violent, just like alcohol can,” said Strand.

The purported involvement of heroin abuse in the circumstances surrounding the shooting follows a disturbing trend noted by officials of an ever-increasing prevalence of hardcore drugs in the community. While Ridgecrest has been held up by Kern County Sheriff Donny Youngblood as the largest gang-free population in the state, he and other officials have repeatedly warned that the grip of gang elements generally follows an increase in drug trafficking.

Strand reported last year a slight spike in drug-related crime, but officials are also pointing anecdotally to the greater access to marijuana as the gateway to an increase in local drug use. “When this started we were seeing scrip written for marijuana for pain management. After that people started using other kinds of narcotics as well,” said Strand.

“A significant number of the crimes we deal with, particularly the violent ones, involve drug or alcohol abuse.” But he also acknowledged that the punishments for those crimes are often woefully inadequate in terms of deterring the behavior and isolating the violators.

“You could double the size of my force and I would not be able to stop people from going off on some vendetta,” said Strand. “We have to find a better way to enforce the law, because the lives and safety of our children and our community are what is at stake.”

Story First Published: 2013-10-30