By Helen Tomlin News Review Staff Writer– Sheriff Donny Youngblood spoke to the BHS Criminal Justice class students last week. He covered the department’s main responsibilities, answered students’ questions, and explained how to pursue this “exciting and rewarding career.” In an honest and frank manner, this “old guy who’s been around a long time” sprinkled his presentation with real-life examples and wise advice.
Youngblood began the department’s responsibilities by talking about the coroner. He made it clear that even in a difficult case such as a child’s autopsy, “we have to go.” A deputy is “the voice of the child, the voice of the body, the voice of what is really now a piece of evidence.” He gave details from a particularly gruesome case that occurred recently and admitted, “If you have children, those things weigh on you.” He then explained that because of this, “we have a lot of programs designed to help officers deal with those types of scenes throughout their career.”
Being “a jailer” is another responsibility. He said, “We have a jail in Mojave, in downtown Bakersfield, three in Lerdo, and we’re working on reopening the one in Ridgecrest.” Currently, “we have 363 people in custody for homicide or attempted homicide. The jails are full of felons. We have less than 100 misdemeanors in custody.”
Another division is undercover narcotics, citing 280 fentanyl deaths in Kern County in the past year and warning the students, “This is not a drug you should play with.” Some have died without knowing they took fentanyl.
Youngblood was particularly excited about the two new helicopters the sheriff’s department recently acquired. He said, “These two H125 airbuses are used for patrol, search, and rescue.” He said, “They are really special aircraft” and are “equipped with radios and computers.” They are the “first helicopters we’ve ever had with an autopilot.” Unlike the old helicopters, these new ones are air-conditioned, which makes a big difference for the pilots, especially in the summer. When they wear their fire-repellent suits in Ridgecrest in the desert when it’s 115 degrees inside the helicopter, “it really takes a toll.” He said, “You can’t stay hydrated.” The sheriff’s department trains their own pilots who fly the aircraft, while the observer is the “eyes on the ground.”
Other responsibilities were serving civil papers and responding to 911 calls “in the outlying and unincorporated areas such as Inyokern and parts of Ridgecrest.” He said, “We respond to sexual abuse, child abuse…any crime you can think of.” The sheriff’s department also hand-selects deputies to work with the K9 unit and they have a volunteer mounted posse. Youngblood is part of that posse and rides his horse with about 25 other members. They now wear a new cowboy hat that replaces the drill sergeant hat. He said proudly, “They really like it and they look really sharp.”
After Youngblood explained the department’s responsibilities, he answered several questions from the students. Julian asked his advice about how interactions between law enforcement officers and young people can have positive outcomes. Youngblood answered, “Whether it’s a service call or a traffic violation, the first five seconds sets the tone of how it will go.” He said if, during a traffic stop, the officer comes up to the driver’s window and asks, “Why the hell are you driving like that?” there will obviously be a negative response. The offended driver will then say, “You stopped me because I’m Black, you stopped me because blah, blah, blah.” There must be empathy from both sides, especially in the current climate today. “Officers are trained to keep things objective.”
Another student, Kori, asked the sheriff what his office’s role is to “ensure the safety of high school students and the community as a whole.” Youngblood said school resource officers (SROs) “are our best opportunity for officers to spend time with you all in high schools.” When officers are at a school, “you get to know them, you converse with them.” Students “say ‘hi’ to them at Walmart…because you know them.” Then, “half the battle is won because it is their community as well as yours.” This is why Youngblood believes officers should live in the community in which they serve. Then “the criminal aspect is much lower.” He lamented that about half the Ridgecrest deputies live in Bakersfield. When that is the reality, “are you really invested in that community, or are you just going out and serving calls?”
Daniel asked what steps are taken to ensure law enforcement officers receive proper training in order to de-escalate certain situations involving mental health issues. Youngblood responded by citing a recent mandate by the Department of Justice that “at least 20 percent of your staff should be trained with crisis intervention training” (CIT). He said, “That’s great because 70 percent of our sheriff’s office are [already] trained and 30 percent just haven’t got there yet.” Since 2012, Youngblood has required a full week of CIT training as part of the basic academy so deputies learn how to diffuse these types of situations. “However,” he cautioned, “that doesn’t negate the fact that a person having a mental health issue can kill you, and you have to balance that.” He assured the student that it is “one of our number one topics.”
Ethan asked the sheriff what law enforcement’s biggest challenges are in Kern County. Without hesitation, Youngblood said that the country-wide issue is “recruitment and retention.” Unlike 10 years ago when “being a cop was really cool,” recruitment is now especially difficult. In the past, if there were 10 deputy positions open, 1000 people would apply, but now “we might get 100 applications.” He said if people have an issue now with law enforcement in general, “we challenge them to come to work and help us fix the problem they perceive needs fixing.” He explained, “This is your sheriff’s office, not mine.” Those people are the citizens, and he is “just a temporary employee that you elect every four years.”
To answer Sebastian, who asked why he liked his job, he said there has never been a morning that “I didn’t get up and say I don’t want to go to work today.” Every day for him is “different and exciting.” Every day, “you have the opportunity to help someone,” and many times, people still come up and thank him for his service. Even though the world seems to be polarized right now, “we represent everyone: Republicans, Democrats, Independents.” And to any illegals who live in Kern County, he said, “I’m still your sheriff.”
Youngblood encouraged interested students to apply and explained the pay and the process. He said, “The door is wide open for anyone to come to work,” and said the pay and benefits are “extremely good.” For example, “the day you graduate from the academy, you get a signing bonus of $25,000 to spend however you want.” They are asked to stay at least five years, and ideally 30. He said, “You could work until you’re 55 years old, retire, and never have to work again.” And, as an added enticement for those living and working in Ridgecrest, they get paid an extra $2000 a month. “That’s a house payment!”
The sheriff’s department currently has 1,000 employees with a goal to “get back up to at least 1400.” Regular deputies are hired at 21. If they want to be a street patrol deputy sheriff, they need to spend six months at the academy and four months for field training. After that, “if everything goes well, they are assigned to a substation at the jail or local patrol.” He said, “You don’t have to be a patrolman your entire life – you can transfer.” The first promotion is to the detective who “does follow up on homicides, sex crimes, and the heinous crimes most people don’t ever have to see.” He added that beginning in January of 2025, the state of California will require a college degree, but “we’re working to make part of the academy a degree program.”
Youngblood gave two warnings to any would-be deputies. The first was smoking marijuana. He acknowledged this drug “has become the norm for society, but it can’t be for police officers.” He gave an imagined scenario of an officer-involved shooting with marijuana in his system. He said, “The plaintiff’s attorney is going to say, ‘Well, he’s obviously high and that’s why he shot him…’” He said, “You just add a bunch of zeros to the lawsuit.” Marijuana is “the number one disqualifier.” Applicants are asked whether they have smoked marijuana in the past year when taking the 500-question psychological test and polygraph. Afterward, a psychologist interviews him and gives a “thumbs up or a thumbs down.” Youngblood said, “It’s not a perfect science, but if he sees red flags, chances are you’re probably not going to get hired.”
The other non-starter is dishonesty. “We hire from the human race and when you do that, you get humans.” That being the case, there will be problems that come up with officers that will require warnings, suspensions, and fines. He said, “We’re firm believers everyone deserves a second chance,” but not with everything.” He warned, “The one issue there is no second chance is dishonesty.”
The sheriff ended his presentation with some fatherly advice and a compliment to Burroughs students in general. He said, “In your lifetime, you’re going to come upon forks in the road, but stop and take a few seconds to ask yourself: ‘What if I take that turn?’” He said if they take the wrong turn, they may never recover. He said they will do stupid things “because we all do.” But some “stupid things are criminal things” that may impact their lives and livelihoods.
Then, in closing, he smiled and said, “I always enjoy coming here because it is totally different than any place else.” As an example, he told them that he noticed how the students opened the door for him and “the bomb squad guys” who were on campus prior to his presentation. He said, “You should be very proud of that.”
The criminal justice class has been offered for several years. Rick Smith began teaching in 2012 after an injury caused him to leave his many-faceted law career. Smith began as a correctional officer and deputy sheriff for Inyo County and then transferred to Ridgecrest Police, where he worked as a patrol officer and then transitioned into a general crimes detective. He has worked with “county, state, and federal investigators over the years.” In 2010, Smith received an “Officer of the Year Award” for helping to solve a case with ICAC (Internet Crimes Against Children) that occurred on the East Coast.
Smith said this popular class “provides a comprehensive and insightful exploration of the legal system, law enforcement, and the complexities of criminal behavior.” He said his objective is to “provide students with the knowledge and critical thinking skills necessary to analyze and address the challenges within the field.” He said class visitors such as Youngblood “make the subject matter more engaging, relevant, and practical for them.”
Before the sheriff’s presentation, the students were treated to a visit from several deputies with the Kern County Bomb Squad. In the backfield at BHS, they did displayed their bomb blast suit, gear, and robot that is used to disarm potential explosives. They also set off a water cannon charge for the class to observe.