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The Cowboy Cops of Kern County, California, and the Not-So-Accidental Death of David Silva

The deputies of the Kern County Sheriff's Office in California, have a history of using extreme force to subdue suspects. They've become national symbols of the cowboy culture in Bakersfield and have been colored as trigger-happy good ol' boys. One...
July 8, 2013, 4:00pm

Thumbnail photo on homepage by Flickr user JulieJordanScott

The cover photo on the Kern County Sheriff Department's website is of Sheriff Donny Youngblood riding a chestnut horse and wearing a big straw Stetson. Since the death of David Sal Silva, a 33-year-old father of four, his deputies have become national symbols of the cowboy culture of Bakersfield, California. Silva died in the process of being arrested, and video cameras captured the beating administered to him by law enforcement. Despite this, his death was ruled accidental.


The agency Youngblood works for has been colored as trigger-happy good ol' boys, and they do certainly seem to kill a lot of unarmed people for a county that even encompassing all of Bakersfield, its suburbs, and reaching east across the Sequioua National Forest all the way to Ridgecrest, only counts about 800,000 inhabitants.

Here is a sketch of what happened, assembled with help from reports by the Bakersfield Californian, interviews, police reports, and through a narrative provided in Silva's autopsy report: Late in the afternoon of May 7, David Sal Silva, 5'11'', 261 pounds and well-known in the area, got in a fight with his longtime girlfriend. This was apparently a common occurrence, or at least the official reports make it seem like he was a violent and abusive partner. There are reasons to wonder about the devotion to the truth possessed by the issuers of those reports.

He seems to have gone out to get fucked up, and then to visit his mother. The coroner's report says that Silva's mother told investigators that his breath was boozy and that she told him to go to Kern Medical Center, a hospital in a mostly poor, immigrant part of town for help.

Silva's mother would later tell reporters from the Bakersfield Californian that she never spoke to investigators, so, make what you will of that, because it's in a signed report signed by, well, whom, exactly? The autopsy report provided to me and the lawyers in the case is redacted, but it's signed by a coroner and a reporting deputy coroner and by five law enforcement officers acting as witnesses to the autopsy, one from the California Highway Patrol and four from the Kern County sheriff's office.


Silva did, in fact, end up at Kern Medical Center, whence he was eventually escorted off the grounds after being found lying in the grass next to a trailer. He then went across the street to the intersection of Palm Drive and Flower Street, where officers from the sheriff's office responded to a call of a "possibly intoxicated man."

According to a timeline given by Sheriff Youngblood, he arrived around midnight. He says he found Silva lying on the ground, and when the deputy tried to wake him by using a "knuckle rub" on Silva's chest, Silva tried to stand up and fell forward, flat on his face.

Youngblood says that Silva then "took a rigid stance"—the word stance in this case actually meaning the exact opposite because Silva seems to have been lying "rigidly" on the ground.

Here is Youngblood's exact description of what happened next: "The deputy attempted to gain control of Mr. Silva, he was unsuccessful, he told Mr. Silva that he was under arrest, to submit to the arrest, or that he would release his dog. He used a remote to release his dog from the car, and the dog engaged Mr. Silva. During this fight the dog bit Mr. Silva several times."

If you're wondering why Silva was being arrested in the first place, you can go ahead and keep wondering, because that's not clear to me either, and it's not clear how a "fight" developed between a deputy using a baton, a police canine, and a man who couldn't stand up.


A second deputy arrived. Both officers kept striking Silva with batons. A third arrived and joined in the striking. The deputies told investigators that while they were striking him, Silva picked up the dog by the neck and that, in Youngblood's words, they could see Silva's "hands closing around the dog's throat."

A minute of this passed. Two California highway-patrol officers joined. They put a device called a "hobble" on Silva's legs, binding them. Two more Kern County sheriff’s deputies arrived. Youngblood said that one of those deputies was a "very, very, very, stout, large deputy, who said he had to use all of his strength to stay on top of those legs and keep them from kicking the deputies." This was taking place on a man in the process of being arrested for no clear reason, facing a seven-on-one (or eight-on-one, if you count the dog) fight, lying on the ground. Two more deputies eventually arrived. At 12:11 AM Silva's body lay facing south on Palm Drive, his upper body on the sidewalk, his legs in the street. He had no pulse. He was taken back across the street to Kern Medical Center, where at 12:44 AM he was pronounced dead.

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Almost all of this information comes directly from the Kern County Sheriff's Office itself. Sheriff Youngblood said at one point in his press conference on May 23 that "This type of incident is not uncommon in law enforcement across this country. This particular case, and the way that it was handled in the media, sent shockwaves all the way across the United States. Every law-enforcement officer in this country was in question. And I said if you’ll wait and be patient, I’ll tell you the facts as I know them, and that’s what I’m doing today."


Which is exactly the point, of course, because in a sense it doesn't matter whether or not the officers involved here actually violated any departmental protocols or whether or not there was an attempt at a cover-up later. The point is that this level of force was used at all on a man who wasn't hurting anybody and wasn't even capable of standing up. "I will tell you one thing," David Cohn, the lawyer for Silva's family, told me, "if you resist or run from law enforcement in Kern County, you will get it." But that's true of most places, and in a sense, the entire narrative of Bakersfield cowboy deputies' going wild on a poor brown man obscures the fact that this sort of thing can happen in New Orleans or New York or Cincinnati or Miami and on down the line. And perhaps what happened next could happen anywhere, too.

The intersection where Silva died is at the edge of a residential neighborhood of little bungalows and four-plexes, and when I visited, there were people out on porches, chatting and drinking beer. The officers in this case must have known they were being observed, which does lead right back to the rather startling conclusion the Sheriff's Office made itself, which is that the deputies weren't doing anything wrong. The department has proudly pointed to the fact that—at least according to the coroner's report—no deputies violated baton-beating protocol by hitting Silva in the head or neck. This is, in the most generous possible analysis, the rough moral equivalent of shrugging your shoulders and saying "I didn't do anything wrong" after killing a guy who ran a stop sign on his bike.


But at some point the deputies, or the command of the department itself, must have realized it was in trouble. While the beating was still going on, Sulina Quair, the woman who filmed the incident, actually called the Sheriff's Office dispatcher, trying to see if someone could radio to stop the beating. The 911 call is surreal and heartbeaking at the same time, because she's accusing the deputies of the killing to an essentially impassive dispatcher who works for the same boss the deputies work for. "There is a man laying on the floor," Quair says, "and your deputies beat the shit out of him. And killed him. I have it all on video camera. We videotaped the whole thing." There's a pause. "Hold on one second, OK?" the dispatcher says. Eventually they take Quair's number and tell her the desk commander is going to call her back.

Sometime after 3 AM, deputies showed up at Quair's home and asked for the phone with the video on it. Quair refused. They also went to the home of Francisco Arrieta, who also had a video and, according to the Californian, deputies then put on gloves and told him "they could do things the easy way or the hard way." Arrieta had to work the next morning, and he gave up his phone.

Quair left her phone with her mother, who refused to give it up without a search warrant and called a lawyer. The lawyer showed up and deputies actually prevented him from talking privately with the mother or from seeing the phone. A search warrant arrives, and mysteriously includes on it the phone that had already been seized, under duress, from Francisco Arrieta. The video on Quair's phone disappeared. On the video from Arrieta's phone a child's voice can be heard saying, “Why are they doing that? He didn’t do nothing!"


The department then took several obvious steps to make sure everything looked right. They sent the phones to the FBI for analysis, though of what has not been made clear. The FBI won't discuss what they found, if anything, and after awhile the Sheriff’s Office adopted a simple refuse-to-comment policy on the case. Sheriff Youngblood blamed the local media for blowing things out of proportion: "If you take a look at the witness statements in this case, and then look at the evidence, it’s pretty clear that we had a group of witnesses out there that didn’t like law enforcement from the beginning."

On May 23, Youngblood announced that Silva's death had been ruled an accident. He also gave a description of the events leading up to the death and made an effort to describe what sounds in a press conference or even in a newspaper report like an insane array of health problems Silva suffered and the drugs he was on. Youngblood made it seem like it's quite possible that anyone else would have walked away from an incident like this just fine.

The KCSO wouldn’t provide comment to me, but everyone I dealt with there was quite friendly, and all I had to do to get a copy of the autopsy was to call ahead and then to drop by the front desk to pick it up.

The coroner who conducted the autopsy is apparently a contractor who does work for a few California counties. An independent coroner didn’t do the autopsy, because Sheriff Youngblood's official title is "Sheriff Coroner/Public Administrator." So, the coroner—name redacted—may or may not be a full-time Kern County employee, but Kern County still signs his checks. The cause of death is listed as "hypertensive heart disease." Other conditions leading to that death are listed as "acute intoxication" and "severe abdominal obesity," among other things. The manner of death is listed as "accident." How this accident occurred is listed as "substance abuse; sequelae of properly applied restrain procedures."


Sheriff Youngblood made a point, in his press conference, of listing all the various drugs in Silva's system, painting him—as is quite common in instances like this—as intoxicated to the point of madness and superhuman strength: "Toxicology shows that Mr. Silva had in his system amphetamine, methamphetamine, a blood-alcohol content of .095, clonazepam, and in his pocket several hydrocodone, vicodin, and Soma pills.”

Exclude the hydrocodone, vicodin, and Soma straightaway, because those weren't actually in Silva's system. His blood-alcohol content was .095, which, in a newspaper or local news story—as any cop who deals with the media well knows—just gets reported as ".095, over the legal driving limit," or something along those lines. Because news organizations aren't in a position to say "he was drunk," or he'd had a couple drinks. But the latter is probably closest to the truth: .095 is barely over the legal driving limit in California; pass-out drunk is usually about three times this concentration.

The clonazepam is Klonopin. A level 50 times higher than the one present in Silva's blood is associated with the possibility of "drowsiness," according to the report. The "amphetamines" were Adderall or dexedrine, and the 30 nanograms per milliliter that were present in his blood were—according to the coroner's own report—less than half of what you would expect peak blood concentration to be two hours after a ten-milligram dose. And ten milligrams of Adderall is not even taking Adderall. It's the dust at the bottom of the pill bottle. It's what they prescribe to preschoolers. So the fact that they were "in his system" is sort of hard to find worth repeating at a press conference.


That leaves the meth, which Youngblood used as the most likely drug to have caused Silva to "behave erratically." It was present at a level of .21 milligrams per milliliter. That is also on the extreme low end of that which the toxicologist reports as being likely to cause "violent and irrational behavior."

This leaves open the possibility that he was still totally fucked up and that he genuinely did exhibit superhuman meth-fiend strength, after falling asleep and trying to stand and failing. But one would think that it was part of the job for deputies in California to know how to handle a guy on meth, without any prior record of violence.

So instead of saying "this guy might still have been high on meth he took a while ago," we have a meth-headed maniac on a cocktail of legal and illegal drugs. It's character destruction through toxicology. When the coroner's findings were released, Youngblood made a double appeal, suggesting first that the FBI and the local district attorney were looking into things and then arguing against a civilian oversight panel: "This case personifies exactly why a citizen review board is not a good idea. I, as the sheriff, deal in facts, deal in law, deal in policy. We don’t deal in emotion. The public deals in emotion. The media controls the public’s emotion, we’ve seen that."

After meeting with the lawyer for Silva's family I drove around until I found the spot where he'd been beaten. We thought that he'd appreciate it—if what they said about him liking a drink was true—if we poured one out for him. So I got a beer, took a few swigs, and poured some out at the base of the stop sign that's now covered with taped-up cards and stuffed animals and photographs, and I left another in brown bag on a bench nearby, which I thought Silva and whoever might find and drink a free Simpler Times lager might enjoy. Two teenagers on a balcony overlooking the exact spot where he was beaten watched me quizzically. It was dark. I waved to them and asked if they'd known Silva. They said that they'd been told not to talk to journalists, which I said was fair. One of the cards read, in gold letters, "At this sad time," and continued in pencil, "my beloved baby you are in heaven!!!"

More about police brutality on VICE:

We'll Need to See Some ID, Officer

Istanbul Police Tear-Gassed a Memorial March This Weekend

The Underachievers Talk About Stop-and-Frisk and Kimani Gray

The byline for this article is a pseudonym.