In Vallejo, California, a former police captain alleged a secret ritual that has sparked an independent investigation into the city’s police force involved: he says some officers involved in deadly shootings since 2000 doubled the tips of their star-shaped badges to mark each time. they killed someone on the line of duty.
Former Vallejo police captain John Whitney, a 19-year veteran of the department and former SWAT commander, who was fired from his job last August, first described the alleged tradition in a published interview this week for the Open Vallejo.
According to the unaffiliated news outlet, officers involved in fatal shootings marked those incidents with barbecues in the backyard and started in a “secret shirt”; that included the curvature of one of the tips of their seven-insignia. points. The data taker said he spoke with more than 20 current and previous government officials and reviewed records and hundreds of photographs taken before and after fatal shootings. Two officers named in the report denied having worn badges; one told the Open Vallejo that it was a “lie.”
Vallejo, a community of 122,000 people in the Bay Area, has been in the crosshairs of its large number of fatal police shootings in recent years (18 since 2010) compared to other California cities. Last month, state attorney general Xavier Becerra announced that the Justice Department will undertake an “expansive review” of Vallejo’s police department after lawsuits claiming excessive force and residents’ demands for an external investigation on the actions of officers.
Police Chief Shawny Williams, who became the first African-American to head the department in November after the retirement of former chief Andrew Bidou, said Friday that he calls for an external investigation to begin as soon as possible. like next week and it could last several months. He said the formal investigation follows his initial investigation into the allegations.
“We have received statements from two different sources in the Vallejo police department that the insignia has been bent,” Williams said in a statement. “As a result of these very worrying and disturbing allegations, I have requested that an external third party complete an independent investigation.”
He did not immediately say who would direct the investigation.
According to Open Vallejo, of the 51 current and former Vallejo officers who have been involved in fatal shootings since 2000, at least 14 had badges folded by a colleague later as part of an “exclusive custom” that even some officers involved in the fatality It was never said there were shootings.
After being fired, Whitney filed a modified retaliation lawsuit against the city in March, but did not mention the tradition of dubbing badges. Whitney commented through her attorney, Alison Berry Wilkinson, that she plans to file a wrongful termination lawsuit next week including what she knew, among other charges, and called him a whistleblower.
“We are grateful that Chief Williams has condemned this deeply disturbing practice, but we are skeptical that the evidence could have been destroyed since then, and this gives the agents involved the possibility of denying the practice with impunity,” he said.
Wilkinson said his client was trying to “speak out against the department’s negative culture,” including badges, and was forced to leave.
Police captains have work “at will” with the department, he said, but he is preparing a lawsuit because Whitney believes he was not given due process and his “reporting activities” played a role in his departure. forced.
“They certainly proposed to deter him because he defended what was right,” Wilkinson said.
The city did not respond to Whitney’s retaliation lawsuit, which he said expressed his “professional opinion on several misconduct issues with the Police Department.” Whitney said his dismissal was related to an investigation into leaked information and he was accused of improperly manipulating the information. Wilkinson said it was deleted in the leak case, but Whitney was still fired and told she was involved in deleting personal data, including family photos, from her work phone.
When Whitney left the department, Vallejo Mayor Bob Sampayan wrote a letter of recommendation that was also attached to Whitney’s claim. “Frankly, I think because John talked about a negative culture in the Vallejo police department, his reputation was walled in by those who didn’t want there to be‘ dirty clothes, ’” the letter says.
A city spokeswoman said Thursday that Sampayan was not available to comment on what Whitney described in his retaliation lawsuit or tradition of folding badges.
Efforts to reach Bidou, the retired police chief, by telephone on Thursday and Friday were not immediately successful, and an email was not immediately returned to the Vallejo Police Association on Friday. Its current employer, Pacific Gas & Electric, refused to make Bidou available, but said in a statement that the company “is aware of these serious allegations, which do not reflect the values of our company or the expectations of our employees “.
In a statement, city manager Greg Nyhoff said last year Sampayan had alerted him to the “disturbing allegations”, urging him to ask Bidou about claiming the bending of the badges. Nyhoff told Nyhoff that he had previously investigated the lawsuit and that “it had not been credited,” Nyhoff said.
“The city takes seriously all claims or credible information about possible misconduct,” Nyhoff added. “Chief Williams is currently following up with the latest allegations taking all investigative action and will take the necessary and necessary actions based on the information provided.”
Williams said earlier this week that he would conduct research to “help me understand the department’s culture in a larger way and take corrective action.”
“I want our community to know that misconduct will never be tolerated under my administration,” he added.
Wilkinson said Whitney learned of the badge flex in April 2019, two months after the fatal shooting of rapper Willie McCoy, 20. McCoy slept in his car at a fast food restaurant by car and workers from the restaurant they said they could not wake up. he. Police said they discovered his car was locked and he was in the car and they saw a gun in his lap. While McCoy did not respond, officers at the scene devised a plan to lock his car inside the car to prevent any erroneous movement if he woke up. Eventually, they saw McCoy moving, according to the camera video of the incident.
When McCoy woke up, six of the officers opened fire with 55 rounds, saying they feared he would grab a gun.
An investigation into the conduct of officers during the shooting remains open.
Once Whitney learned of the badge’s bending, “she wanted to do some research at the time and also tried to get this very disturbing practice to be condemned,” Wilkinson said.
Whitney, given her high-ranking position, had ordered supervisors at the end of a meeting to inspect badges and collect the folds of their subordinates; 10 were recovered, Wilkinson said.
But according to Whitney, Bidou returned the badges to officers, whose responsibility would have been to replace or repair them, Wilkinson said.
“What has happened to these badges is unknown to my client,” he said, adding that given the time that has passed, any evidence of the alleged custom of bending the badge is already over.
Vallejo Police Lieutenant Michael Nichelini, president of the Vallejo Police Officers Association, called the complaint a “ridiculous idea” and said any appearance that the badges were purposely set up is false. because “they arrive that way.”
“All of these recent attacks on Vallejo police officers are constructed lies pushed to fit a narrative that doesn’t exist,” he said in a statement.
Nichelini has been on leave since July 15 in connection with the destruction of a police vehicle windshield that the department was unable to retain and evidence is believed to have occurred in a fatal shooting of a 22-year-old man, involved by an officer. Becerra’s office announced this month that it will open an investigation into the destruction of evidence.
His office, however, referred comments on allegations of a practice of dubbing insignia to officials in the city of Vallejo.
Sampayan, who retired from Vallejo’s police department as a sergeant in 2006, said he remembered an incident during his career when an officer had a corner of the badge folded, but did not know what it represented. He told Vallejo Times-Herald that after the practice was brought to the attention of officials more than a year ago, “changes have been made.”
“I’m not very happy with what he represented,” he said. “Making fun of and celebrating that you shot someone is absolutely disgusting. There’s no room for that kind of screen.”
Kori McCoy, an older brother of Willie McCoy, said he was not impressed by the allegations and they confirm the police department should be “investigated from top to bottom.”
“We’ve been saying since day one that Willie was executed,” McCoy said.