KLEA hosts public safety forum

Rebecca Neipp

News Review Staff Writer

KLEA hosts public safety forumRising crime, reduced law-enforcement presence, increased risks to uniformed officers, low morale and prolonged budget woes were topics that bubbled to the surface at last week’s “Deputies, Desserts and Discussion,” a town hall-style meeting hosted last week by the Kern Law Enforcement Association.

KLEA President David Kessler, speaking for the association, not as a sergeant for the Kern County Sheriff’s Office, welcomed dozens of residents to the event and outlined for them the current challenges to those tasked with keeping the peace.

He told his listeners that deputies in his department are among the lowest-wage earners in the profession. Manpower is spread thinly, and morale is at an all-time low.

“It is getting harder and harder to find qualified officers.”

This problem is valudated by the most recent academy held by KCSO — which received 2,000 applicants. About 700 passed the background check. Another 53 passed the test. About 35 will graduate.

Kessler acknowledged concerns specific to the Indian Wells Valley community — most prominently the recent closure of the Ridgecrest jail. In addition, the last two years saw funding for positions at the local substation reduced from 11 to nine. Only five are currently filled. And at night all of those resources are diverted to Kern River Valley.

KCSO deputies in that area are still expected to respond to local calls, but Mayor Peggy Breeden noted that two murders in outlying areas of the community — under the sheriff’s jurisdiction — yielded response times of more than an hour. She added that local deputies often leave their local posts long before the evening shift to KRV.

Ridgecrest Police Department fills in the gap, but is not compensated.

Kessler said that this is happening to all outlying areas of Kern.

Complicating matters are a series of state mandates that have reduced the funding and tools that have historically been relied on by law enforcement and criminal justice to protect the public.

What can the public do?

“The best thing to do to help yourselves is, Tuesday morning at 9 a.m., get citizens on a bus and over to the Kern County Board of Supervisors meeting,” said Kessler. “Tell them we need more law enforcement. Contact Sheriff Donny Youngblood and tell him to make Ridgecrest a priority.”

He said that the department needs competitive pay to fill vacancies. That authority comes from the board of supervisors, which determines how much money to give the sheriff, and from Youngblood, who decides how to spend that money.

“My biggest concern is not pay,” said Cassie Parsons, who departed from KSCO to take a job in the city. “It used to be pay. Now it is the safety factor.”

Parsons told the audience that her husband and all her friends remain with the department. “They are responding to things that one person should not be responding to.”

“I don’t think there has ever been a time in our history where wearing a uniform has come with such great risk — ever,” said 1st District Supervisor Mick Gleason, who was in attendance.

“We live in a world where the state of California has passed a series of laws that leave us all scratching our heads. They may make sense in San Francisco and the big cities — I don’t know, I don’t live there — but here they are disastrous.”

Compounding that constraint is a financial disaster that hit Kern two years ago — and will continue to impact spending in the foreseeable future.

“We lost $63 million in our budget, which has devastated our ability to do what we want to provide safety in our community. We could find money to give officers raises, but Donny would have to find somewhere else to cut. Perhaps there would be layoffs. Then you just have fewer officers making more money.

“So it’s not fun. There are no pay raises that I know of coming for anyone.”

He said that the supervisors have supported Youngblood’s requests for academy training. “But out of all those graduates, you want to know how many are coming to Ridgecrest? … None.”

He said that public safety absorbs 75 percent of the county’s budget. “We have demonstrated, and will continue to demonstrate, that public safety is our main concern.”

Many, however, continued to point to the risks in waiting to address safety concerns.

“Are they going to wait until we lose a deputy?” asked Parsons.

Pictured: Off-duty deputies, elected officials and members of the public vet public safety concerns at last week’s “Deputies, Desserts and Discussion,” hosted by KLEA. -- Photo by Laura Austin

Story First Published: 2017-09-22