Beaten to death by Bakersfield police

May 21, 2013

Clayton Plake reports on the death of a Bakersfield man following a beating at the hands of sheriff's deputies--and the subsequent attempts to cover up this crime.

DAVID SILVA, a resident of Bakersfield, Calif., and father of four, died on May 8 at a local hospital--the victim of a savage police beating.

Although the coroner's report released the following Friday defers judgment on the ultimate cause of death, multiple eyewitness have come forward to say they saw law enforcement personnel beat Silva until he was unconscious and on the edge of death.

The identities of the officers involved have not been released. As this article was being written, they were reportedly on paid administrative leave.

Statements released by Kern County Sheriff Don Youngblood and Spokesperson Ray Pruitt are short and devoid of detail. But both the Kern County Sheriff's Department (KCSD) and California Highway Patrol (CHP) allege that they received a call the night of May 7 about an intoxicated man, supposedly fitting Silva's description, lying in the grass near a downtown medical facility.

The deputy who was first to respond to the call was a member of a KCSD K-9 unit. He allegedly attempted to engage Silva, who was supposedly "uncooperative." According to the police story, a confrontation then ensued between Silva and the deputy, who used what the KCSD is calling "non-lethal" force in order to force Silva to comply.

David Silva posing with three of his four children in a family photo
David Silva posing with three of his four children in a family photo

The way the KCSD and the CHP tell it, it seems hard to understand how the use of "non-lethal force" could result in Silva's death. But eyewitness testimony--from at least four different people who had an unobstructed view of events as they unfolded--paints a horrendous and very different picture of what actually happened that night.

According to witnesses, the deputy who was first on the scene called for backup--then turned his dog on Silva, before pummeling him with baton strikes. The number of uniforms on the scene quickly multiplied. By the time the officers involved thought Silva had had enough, no less than six sheriff's deputies and two police officers had attacked Silva, and the police dog continued to tug on his body.

The recording of a 911 call making the rounds on local media outlets captures the brutality of the incident. "There is a man lying on the floor, and your officers beat the [expletive deleted] out of him and killed him," one caller, Sulina Quair, said to the operator. "The man is dead laying here right now. These cops had no reason to do this to this man."

Another eyewitness, Ruben Ceballos, told the Los Angeles Times that he was jolted awake by the cracking sounds that echoed each time a baton was brought down across Silva's head.

AS IF the results of such excessive force were not stomach-turning enough, deputies immediately attempted to destroy any evidence of their misconduct.

Several individuals who witnessed Silva's beating, including Quair, were recording the events on cell phones.

At 3 a.m. the morning following Silva's death, deputies knocked on the doors of eyewitnesses alleged to have cell phone footage of the incident, demanding they give up their phones. One man finally gave in for fear of losing his job, after deputies refused to allow him to leave for work until he had surrendered his phone.

Another witness, 53-year-old Maria Melendez, refused for nearly 10 hours to relinquish her phone, until a search warrant arrived.

Melendez had told the officers she was recording them--in the hopes it would get them to stop beating and kicking Silva. Melendez claims the video of the beating showed Silva screaming and crying for help for a total of eight minutes, before he fell silent, and police tied him up--dropping him twice on the ground in the process. It was only then officers began CPR.

After turning the phones over to an FBI forensics team for "data analysis," both phones were eventually returned. Melendez's phone no longer contained the video footage she had taken that night. John Tello, an attorney working with the Silva family, states the returned phones have been turned over to a private investigator for further analysis. Footage of the incident is expected to be released in the coming days.

Jason Land, another witness to the beating, said that shortly after he spoke out on the record, he found himself in handcuffs. Land, who is African American, was arrested, but then released shortly thereafter. "If I wouldn't have said anything, I wouldn't have been in cuffs," Land told local reporters.

Department spokespeople have not said whether any disciplinary action will be taken against the deputies involved in the beating that cost Silva his life. Members of the Silva family are currently pursuing civil litigation against the offending officers and their respective departments.

THE ROOTS of such racist police violence run deep in Bakersfield's history. As investigative journalist Edward Humes notes in his book Mean Justice, an extended study of legal misconduct in the area, early in its history, Bakersfield developed a reputation for dispensing the worst kind of "frontier justice"--swift, brutal and geared toward terrorizing poor and working-class minority populations.

A few decades ago, the city was a center of power for the Ku Klux Klan, with many of its members nestled comfortably inside of top positions among local law enforcement personnel.

Though the Klan has largely disappeared from public life in Bakersfield, the pervasive racism its robust past presence suggests has not. Humes' brief survey of criminal cases tried from 1982 to 1998 reveals that of 102 individuals charged with various felony crimes, 56 were convicted, the majority of them people of color. Of those convictions, however, only nine have been upheld--and Humes indicates the circumstances around even them remain highly suspect.

But such racist zeal and corruption doesn't end with the courts, as Silva's murder and the subsequent cover-up make abundantly clear. Less than two years ago, the Bakersfield Californian reported on the criminal behavior of area law enforcement personnel. Offenses ranged from petty theft--with officers allegedly targeting undocumented immigrants during routine pedestrian stops because the cops know their undocumented status makes it unlikely they'll report the misconduct--to reportedly sexually assaulting women in their custody.

In 2010, Deputy Ralph Contreras was sentenced to 15 years in prison for the beating of a detainee in a holding cell that resulted in his death. Another deputy was convicted of involuntary manslaughter for his role in that murder.

David Silva's death at the hands of law enforcement officials is another in a disturbing pattern of horrendous police violence. Despite attempts to intimidate witnesses, destroy evidence and assassinate Silva's character, the people fighting for justice for David Silva will not be silenced.

On May 11, Silva's family and friends held a vigil in front of the Kern Medical Center, where Silva was beaten. Victims of police violence from surrounding areas have already offered their solidarity and support. Several dozen activists, friends and community members also gathered in downtown Bakersfield and marched to demand that Silva's murderers be held accountable for the life they took.

We can't expect real justice for David Silva to come from law enforcement officials or from the courts. It will have to come from a movement that demands an end to police terror.

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