Police chief protects public safety on two fronts

2020 Vision: Public Safety

Rebecca Neipp

News Review Staff Writer

Police chief  protects  public  safety on  two frontsWhile Jed McLaughlin, the top steward of public safety in our community, has fought valiantly against statewide mandates that have decriminalized felonies, prioritized perpetrator rights above victim safety and facilitated rising criminal trends across the state, he also got a dynamic reminder 18-months into his tenure as Ridgecrest Police Chief that protecting the public also means enforcing order and coordinating relief efforts in a natural disaster.

On July 4, 2019, Ridgecrest was rocked by a 6.4-magnitude earthquake. Amid a maelstrom of panic, confusion and rattled nerves, McLaughlin assembled his team, which included mutual aid descending from all quarters, at the incident command center.

Together with first-responders, seismologists, volunteers and other officials, McLaughlin began to survey damage to inform next steps. Kenneth Hudnut of the U.S. Geological Survey credits the chief’s line of questioning with helping him discover that forecast models showed a high likelihood of another hit. More help was called in, medical patients were evacuated and support was in place when the 7.1 quake hit the following day.

County, state and federal officials flew in to assess losses and pledge support. Through it all, our hometown police chief maintained command of the crisis — garnering the confidence of his community and the praise of visiting authorities.

Countless thousands of aftershocks later, we are still in a continued state of emergency. Schools have made critical repairs, and a flood of resources is expected to start this year to address China Lake repairs.

However, McLaughlin noted that his role requires a battle on two fronts — continued vigilance relating to past and subsequent quakes, as well as to the state laws that continue to hinder peace officers in the line of duty.

Cynthia Zimmer, who was sworn in some 11 months ago as the Kern County District Attorney, noted that newly elected Gov. Gavin Newsom signed into effect 22 new bills relating to law enforcement last year. “Not one of them was a help.”

Since 2011 the state of California has enacted AB 109, displacing 10,000 convicts onto the streets. Then Prop 47 declassified hundreds of felonies, so that many drug and theft charges now result in only citations. Prop 57 facilitated early release of prisoners.

“All of this created a perfect storm for nonaccountability,” said Zimmer. Without threat of incarceration, some 80 percent of perpetrators fail to appear before court. Nonappearance results in a warrant, but even that results in simply another citation upon arrest.

Now the bail bond system has been eliminated. Repeat offenders no longer have penalties for recidivism. Citizens can no longer be compelled to comply with officers in the line of duty.

“Criminals are smart. They know the loopholes. We in law enforcement do the best we can within the limits, but it continues to be a challenge.”

One notable exception for law enforcement and criminal justice is homicide cases. Kern County — the murder capital of California, per capita — saw the homicide rates go down last year for the first time in five years.

“I only have homicide statistics in front of me,” said Zimmer. “Ridgecrest actually rose slightly — from two murders in 2018 to three in 2019. It’s still relatively low, but zero would be better.”

“It’s hard to say which of these policies have had the greatest impact on crime, but we know that altogether they have created havoc,” said McLaughlin.

“What we have done here is tried to focus our resources on the most serious crimes — arresting and incarcerating the career criminals who pose the greatest threat to public safety.

It’s not that we think any crime is irrelevant, but if you can remove the people responsible for inflicting the most harm you can improve safety for the greatest number of people.”

Peering into the future, McLaughlin said he worries that retention may become more difficult as the salaries of local peace officers remain stagnant rather than competitive.

“The one thing I can say is that we have great people who work for us and we have a great community. One of the reason so many of our officers choose to stay here is because we have a very supportive population who collaborate as partners in maintaining the peace.”

He said that trait became evident in the outpouring of support that followed the earthquakes.

“We have been busier than ever in the aftermath, cleaning up and reporting requirements of the disaster. But I still want to do something that recognizes our volunteers, our officers and everyone who showed up to help.

“Another lesson learned following the earthquakes is how important it is for us to get together. And we shouldn’t wait for a disaster — we should gather frequently just to maintain the bonds that carry us through the crises.”

McLaughlin and Zimmer agreed that one important component of their advocacy efforts is continuing to educate the public on the laws that have been passed and the ones coming down the pike, as well as how the public can vote to improve safety.

“Unfortunately, public safety does not become a priority to many people until it’s compromised,” said Zimmer.

“But you know what I’m optimistic about? The public is starting to care again. It’s getting scary, and that means people are engaging. When that happens, there is change.

“And I have to say, in the smaller communities like Ridgecrest and Tehachapi, crime is committed by a very small percentage of the population. Your law enforcement knows who they are, remains engaged. And that’s an advantage. Even when things get worse elsewhere, Ridgecrest stays in pretty good shape.”

Story First Published: 2020-01-03