In Vallejo, California, a former police officer claims a secrecy ritual that has sparked an independent investigation into the city’s compounded police force: He says some officers involved in deadly shootings since 2000 bent the tips of their star-shaped badges to mark each time they killed someone in the line of duty.
Former Vallejo police captain John Whitney, a 19-year veteran and former SWAT commander who was fired from his job last August, first described the alleged tradition in an interview published this week by Open Vallejo .
According to the non-affiliated news committee, officers involved in fatal shootings marked the events with barbecue in the backyard and were initiated into a “secret click”
Vallejo, a community of 122,000 people in the Bay Area, has been in the face of the high number of fatal police shootings in recent years – 18 since 2010 – compared to other cities in California. Last month, Attorney General Xavier Becerra announced that the Department of Justice will conduct an “expansive review” of the Vallejo Police Department following lawsuits alleging excessive power and residents ‘demands for an external investigation into the officers’ actions.
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 he calls for a foreign inquiry to begin as early as next week and could take several months. He said the formal investigation follows his initial investigation into the allegations.
“We have received statements from two different sources within the Vallejo Police Department that there has been a bending of the badge,” Williams said in a statement. “As a result of these very disturbing and disturbing allegations, I have requested that an independent external investigation be completed by a third party.”
He did not immediately say who would conduct the investigation.
According to Open Vallejo, of the 51 current and former Vallejo officers who have been involved in deadly shootings since 2000, at least 14 had their emblems bent by a colleague afterwards as part of an “exclusive custom” that even some officers involved in the fatal shootings were never told that existed.
After he was fired, Whitney filed an amended retaliation claim against the city in March, but did not mention the badge-bending tradition. Whitney commented through her attorney, Alison Berry Wilkinson, who said she plans to file an unfair dismissal next week that will include what he knew, among other allegations, and described him as a warning.
“We are grateful that Chief Williams has condemned this deeply disturbing practice, but we are skeptical because evidence could have been destroyed since then and it gives the officers involved a chance to deny this practice with impunity,” she said.
Wilkinson said her client tried to “speak against the negative culture” within the department, including about badges, and was forced out as a result.
Police captains have “will-employment” with the department, she said, but she is preparing a lawsuit because Whitney believes he was not given due process and his “whistleblowing activities” played a role in his forced departure.
“They certainly determined to confuse him because he stood up for what was right,” Wilkinson said.
The city did not respond to Whitney’s retaliation claim, saying he expressed “his professional statements about various disproportionate issues with the Department of Police.” Whitney said his dismissal was related to an investigation into leaked information and he was accused of mismanaging information. Wilkinson said he was cleared in the leaked case, but Whitney was still fired and was told it was related to the deletion of personal information, including family photos, from his work phone.
When Whitney left the department, Vallejo Mayor Bob Sampayan wrote a letter of recommendation that was also attached to Whitney’s claim. “Honestly, I think that because John was talking about a negative culture at the Vallejo Police Department, his reputation was tarnished by those who did not want any ‘dirty laundry’ sent,” the letter says.
A city spokesman on Thursday said Sampayan was not available for comment on what Whitney described in his retaliation claim or the bathing bending tradition.
Attempts to reach Bidou, the retired police chief, per. Telephone Thursday and Friday were not immediately successful, and an email to the Vallejo Police Officers Association was not immediately returned Friday. His current employer, Pacific Gas & Electric, declined 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, Mayor Greg Nyhoff said Sampayan had warned him last year about the “disturbing allegations” that prompted him to ask Bidou about the badge bending allegation. The then boss told Nyhoff that he had previously investigated the allegation and that it “had not been substantiated,” Nyhoff said.
“The city takes any allegations or credible information about potential misconduct seriously,” Nyhoff added. “Chief Williams is currently following up on the previous charges, taking all investigative measures, and he will take the appropriate and necessary action based on the information provided.”
Williams said earlier this week that he would conduct a survey to “help me better understand the department’s culture and take corrective action.”
“I want our society to know that inequality is never tolerated under my administration,” he added.
Wilkinson said Whitney was told about bending badges in April 2019, two months after the fatal shooting of rapper Willie McCoy, 20. McCoy slept in his car at a fast-food restaurant run through, and restaurant workers said they could not wake up Hi M. Police said they discovered his car was locked and in the driveway, and saw a gun on his lap. While McCoy did not respond, officers at the scene devised a plan to block his car inside the drive through to prevent any erratic movement if he woke up. Eventually, they saw McCoy move, according to the bodycam video of the incident.
When McCoy woke up, six of the officers opened fire with 55 rounds, saying they were afraid he was grabbing for a weapon.
An investigation into the officers’ behavior during the shooting remains open.
When Whitney was told about the badges bend, he would “have an investigation done at the time and also tried to put an end to the very disturbing practice and be condemned,” Wilkinson said.
Because of his senior position, Whitney had ordered supervisors at the end of a meeting to inspect badges and collect any bends from their subordinates; 10 were retrieved, Wilkinson said.
But according to Whitney, Bidou got badges back to the officers whose responsibility it would have been to replace or repair them, Wilkinson said.
“What happened to these badges is unknown to my client,” she said, adding that given the time that has elapsed, any evidence of the alleged badge bending custom is now gone.
Vallejo Police lt. Michael Nichelini, president of the Vallejo Police Officers’ Association, called the allegation a “ridiculous view” and said any appearance that badges were intentionally bent is false because “they come that way.”
“All these recent attacks on Vallejo police officers are fabricated lies pushed to fit a narrative that does not exist,” he said in a statement.
Nichelini has been on leave since July 15 in connection with the destruction of a windshield for a police vehicle that the department could not preserve and is considered evidence in a fatal official involved shooting of a 22-year-old man in June. Becerra’s office announced this month that it will open an investigation into the increase in evidence.
His office, however, referred to Vallejo city officials comment on the allegations of a bathing practice.
Sampayan, who retired from the Vallejo police department as a sergeant in 2006, has said he remembered an incident during his career when an officer had a corner of his badge bent but did not know what it represented. He told the Vallejo Times-Herald that “after this practice was brought to the attention of officials more than a year ago,” changes have been made. “
“I’m not very happy with what it represented,” he said. “Showing and celebrating that you’ve shot someone is absolutely disgusting. There’s no place for that kind of display.”
Kori McCoy, an older brother of Willie McCoy, said he was not shocked by the allegations and that they confirm that the police department should be “investigated from top to bottom.”
“We have said from day one that Willie was executed,” McCoy said.