Public safety topped the list of concerns voiced by Kern River Valley residents at Monday night's town hall meeting held by First District Supervisor Mick Gleason and Kern County Sheriff Donny Youngblood in Lake Isabella. The crowd's concerns centered largely around two words: frustration and fear.
For many months, valley residents have taken largely to social media groups to voice their frustrations about a lack of law enforcement presence in the community and what they can do to protect themselves. While the arrival of Sgt. Josh Nicholson at the sheriff substation has produced an increasingly growing arrest report each week, residents are still finding the valley's law enforcement presence lacking when they feel they need it most. In addition, there is a growing frustration about the release of recently arrested criminals back into the community.
The sometimes inaccurate online chatter has become so prevalent that Gleason and Youngblood took notice and scheduled this meeting specifically to address these concerns.
"When I see information going around that's not true, I want to correct that," said Youngblood.
Gleason began the meeting with a brief explanation of the county's budget woes, which have been significantly impacted by the reduction of oil prices. With an impact of several million dollars to the county's general fund, Gleason reminded the crowd that an immediate fix to this crisis would have required a 15 percent cut to county service budgets across the board; in short, it would have sparked the loss of things like fire stations, libraries and public programs countywide. In order to avoid this, county supervisors implemented a four-year plan in which five percent cuts were made over time, instead. Now that this plan has been put into place, many county services are feeling the loss - including the Sheriff.
This is a tight situation for Youngblood, who expressed frustration at the county's inability to retain deputies. According to Youngblood, in the last two years, he has lost around 40 deputies to higher paying locations. With Kern County paying its deputies about $60,000 to $65,000 a year, many are not finding the incentive to stay. Youngblood pointed out that in places like Anaheim, sheriff deputies make about $100,000 a year, and in Fresno, they are given a sign-on bonus of $10,000. This makes it difficult to compete in a county that has some of the lowest paid deputies in the state. Youngblood explained the recruiting process, pointing out that KCSO currently cannot recruit quickly enough to keep up with its losses.
One of his largest concerns is that in places like the Kern River Valley, he sees a rising interest in vigilantism.
Chuck Dunn, a resident who leads Kern River Valley Law & Order, explained that since he moved to the valley in 1965, he has seen a drastic change in the amount of crime he encounters. After trying to file complaints about an incident for four months, he's not happy.
"I am not afraid of vigilantism," warned Dunn.
Other residents, however, are more hesitant to protect themselves after being given conflicting information as to what their rights are. With an increase in response time, many residents questioned their options pending officer arrival. When is it appropriate to use pepper spray? When is a firearm okay? If an officer does not respond immediately, should they keep calling?
Resident Gloria Henry was told in the past that she had to wait until a person was two steps into her house before she could defend herself against them. She mentioned that another resident raised a recent concern about finding a mentally ill woman in her 15-year-old grandson's bedroom. Repeatedly, residents like Henry wanted to hear straight from Youngblood - how do we defend ourselves when no one is there to help?
While Youngblood cautioned residents about the burden of proof that they have been threatened, he was adamant that in the presence of a real threat, citizens are legally protected to act in their own defense.
"The law says you have a right to protect yourself," he emphasized.
However, another concern of residents is why repeated offenders are found back on the streets shortly after being arrested.
In short, Youngblood attributes this to public safety realignment laws that have been put into place in recent years. The penalty for misdemeanors in the state of California have relaxed, making it much more difficult for petty criminals to receive jail time.
"To get to state prison, you have to be an overachiever," he said with a chuckle.
That does not mean that residents should hesitate to call the police, however. Youngblood said that in the first four months of 2017, compared to the first four months of 2016, calls for services have gone down 25 percent in the Kern River Valley.
"Part of that is that people get frustrated and say, 'To hell with it, I'm not even going to call because nothing's going to happen.' I get that because it happens to me in my neighborhood," said Youngblood. "But you can't give up, and you can't quit."
He urged residents to participate, show up for budget hearings, and speak directly to representatives about the issues they are encountering because of public safety realignment.
"Politicians respond to pressure," he reminded.
He also asked residents to remember that with a shortage of staff, KCSO is required to prioritize events very conservatively. Because of the fear many residents feel when victimized by thieves, it can be easy to expect an immediate response. However, if deputies are addressing a potentially violent incident in another location, their manpower may be required there first. While Youngblood understands that many residents feel disinclined to call the sheriff when an incident arises, he asks that they remember that the deputies have to prioritize the calls they receive.
"Our world's not black and white," Youngblood said. "I can promise you they're not ignoring you just because they don't want to come."
This does not sit well with some residents, as many expressed unease about simply leaving their houses unattended for short periods of time.
Nicole Benenati, recognizable to many residents for her tireless involvement with neighborhood watch, emphasized, "The things that are happening here are escalating, and we're afraid. This community is victimized."
Benenati also questioned both Youngblood and Gleason as to why this is the first time in her six months back in the valley that she has seen them together addressing the community. Many other residents expressed a similar sentiment, saying that they would like to see more of Gleason and occasionally speak with him directly.
Both Gleason and Youngblood stated that they make trips to the community regularly and would be willing to communicate with residents any time they are invited.
"I will plant my butt in that seat," stated Gleason, reminding residents that if he holds regular office hours in the valley, "You need to show up."
Youngblood also addressed the repeated concern that this particular meeting was held during normal work hours on a weekday, stating that he would be more than happy to hold another meeting during later hours to accommodate working residents who were unable to attend.
Overall, Youngblood encourages residents to stay in communication with Sgt. Nicholson and himself as problems occur. The frustration with a lack of law enforcement staff is something he knows all too well, and he refers to balancing his staff all over the county as nothing short of a "magic act." However, he does not want this to stop residents from calling when incidents occur.
"We're going to keep coming. I'll tell you that." said Youngblood.