The Life and Death of Willie McCoy

25 min
Willie McCoy, center, was shot and killed by Vallejo Police on February 9, 2019. (Courtesy of David Harrison)

Before Willie McCoy became the latest name behind a police accountability movement in Vallejo, he was a rising young rapper who made music that was, in part, about what it meant to him to be a young black man in America.

Then, on Feb. 9, six officers fired 55 bullets at McCoy in a Taco Bell parking lot. McCoy appeared to be asleep in his car. He died just before his 21st birthday.

His death is one of about 21 fatal shootings by Vallejo police since 2005.

“It's a reminder of soon as you get close to cracking the stratosphere for a little bit of success, there’s somebody right there to put you back in your place — this is where you belong boy,” said David Harrison, McCoy’s older cousin. “We want to unify the people to say: no more.”

Before he was killed, McCoy wanted to make music about police brutality, being pulled over by the police, the violence he saw in his community, but also the joy.

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“The music that he made was just all about the struggle, and trying to identify himself with everyone that walked in the same footsteps as him,” said Damariee Cole, McCoy’s nephew.

“Everybody has a skill, and his skill was music,” Cole said. “He wanted everybody to understand his background and where he came from; his struggle, and letting everybody know that, you know, you can come out of poverty and be something.”

McCoy grew up in Sacramento and Vallejo. He was in Sacramento until his father died of mesothelioma when he was about 11 years old. He moved to Vallejo to live with his mom. About two months later, she died of breast cancer, said Harrison.

“He had a good culture to him you know,” Harrison said. “Willie was raised by the village by all of the family and the whole.”

McCoy's family has filed a federal civil rights lawsuit for wrongful death against the city of Vallejo.

They’ve also joined a chorus of families of people shot by police in Vallejo who show up at City Hall demanding police officers be held accountable by city leaders.

“There's no one watching the watcher,” Harrison said. “There's no policing the police.”

The Shooting

Vallejo police received a call at approximately 10:36 p.m. on Feb. 9 from a Taco Bell employee. He was calling about a person in a vehicle unresponsive to car horn honks in the drive thru.

Vallejo Police responded to check on the welfare of the driver. When police arrived, they said the driver was unresponsive — with a gun on his lap.

David Harrison (left) with his cousin Willie McCoy (right) (Courtesy of David Harrison)

Police would later explain that officers didn’t try to wake McCoy up when they arrived on scene. They requested backup and came up with a plan: One officer would open the door, while another grabbed the handgun. But police said the doors were locked, and the car was in drive. While they worked to block his car with two patrol cars, McCoy started to wake up.

“The driver looked at the officers, and the officers began to yell commands to include 'keep your hands up, show me your hands,' ” said Sgt. Jeff Tai in a video press release after the shooting. “The driver suddenly reached down for the firearm, and at this point, six officers fire their duty weapons at the officer.”

At about 11:00 p.m. the night of the shooting, Harrison got a call from one of his cousins. Willie had been shot in Vallejo.

Harrison and his dad picked up family members in Oakland and Berkeley and headed for the Taco Bell on Admiral Callaghan Lane. There, they saw McCoy’s silver Mercedes.

Harrison said it took a while to learn whether McCoy was in the car or not. Police weren’t giving them much information and McCoy had a tendency to let people borrow his car.

It was cold and drizzling. Harrison said about eight officers lined up in front of police tape, blocking access to the scene. Harrison and his family faced them. One of his cousins approached an officer who said he could only share one thing with the family: “We can't tell you anything,” Harrison recalled the officer saying.

The Vallejo Police Department has, so far, declined requests for a sit-down interview. City officials have said it is difficult to answer case-specific questions, in part because of the lawsuit.

Harrison doesn't remember how long the family waited before confirming it was McCoy — it felt like an eternity. They sat there until they saw a tow truck come in to pull McCoy’s car away.

“When we seen all the bullets it was confirmed,” Harrison said. “They said the police shot him. And when he said that I looked at my cousin I said ‘Cuz, they executed him.'"

Harrison’s family began a desperate search for answers: Why was McCoy shot? What happened?

At least two of the officers involved in McCoy's death have been involved in police shootings before. Among them was Ryan McMahon, who shot and killed an unarmed black man who was stopped for riding his bike without a light in 2018. Mark Thompson was involved in a police shooting in 2012. The other four officers involved in McCoy’s shooting are Collin Eaton, Bryan Glick, Jordan Patzer and Anthony Romero-Cano.

All officers have since been deemed able to return to their regular duties, according to the police department.

The Search for Answers

Since the shooting, David Harrison and McCoy’s family have been at city council meetings, rallies and anywhere else to tell McCoy's story and to get information about his death.

About two months after the shooting, VPD released all six angles of the shooting from each officer in a single video. The clearest view of the inside of the car came from the camera of an officer standing directly in front of the driver’s side window. VPD slowed down that video to show the moment McCoy was purported to have reached for a gun. The video is not clear enough to make out a gun.

David Harrison, Willie McCoy's cousin, speaking at a Vallejo City Council meeting June 25, 2019. (Ericka Cruz Guevarra/KQED)

Harrison doesn’t believe the police’s version of events. If police say they shot his cousin because he reached for a gun, he wants proof.

“The police narrative was that Willie had a gun on his lap and they feared for their lives, and he reached for the gun and so they had to initially shoot him,” Harrison said. “But after seeing the video, hey look, there's no gun. I don’t see him pointing a gun at nobody.”

On June 27, 2019, Oakland civil rights attorney John Burris filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the city of Vallejo, its city manager, police chief and six officers involved in McCoy’s death. Burris is seeking a federal court to monitor VPD compliance with civil rights law.

“The Vallejo Police Department’s unconstitutional policing has become so dire and widespread that the City’s residents live in terror of the police department,” the lawsuit states. “Despite being on notice of their well-documented history of violence and terror, the City of Vallejo refuses to acknowledge or remedy their failure to supervise, discipline or retrain their officers.”

What Happened to the Music

Sometimes, when Damariee Cole is driving in his car, he puts on a song with McCoy on the track and cries. He doesn’t always tell other family members, but it hurts. Since McCoy’s death, members of his rap groups have struggled to stay motivated.

“Willie was a leader,” he said. “Sometimes we didn't want to do projects or go to the studio or write rhymes. Willie was always writing when there was no beat. He would be right in his car and he would have a full song already written out with no beat. So, when you lose a leader with somebody that's given us that extra motivation, you know, it's hard to continue.”

It’s also hard to be around everyone else in the group. It’s a reminder of who’s not there.

“When Willie was there, we always was one,” he said. “Now it’s like when we get together, it just reminds us so much of Willie that all of us just doing our own thing.”

Harrison believed McCoy was going to take their family to new heights — he was on a better path in life, studying music at Laney College in Oakland. Just as soon as things were on the up and up, he was killed, he said.

But Harrison pulls from the strength of his ancestors:

Willie McCoy (Courtesy of David Harrison)

Harrison and McCoy and their fathers are descendants of slavery and Jim Crow — Mississippi natives — who joined the migration to Oakland and the Bay.

For Harrison, this shooting, the police’s narrative, the city’s response to him and his family, or lack thereof, is the same systemic racism his family escaped, manifesting itself in a different form. He has every intention of fighting it.

No Justice, No Peace

Harrison wants to see officers prosecuted in Vallejo. He wants a clear message sent to other officers: that there are consequences for killing people. Nationwide, that’s rare. Rarely do officers face legal consequences for killing people on the job.

Still, McCoy’s family has continued to show up in protest at Vallejo City Hall, demanding city leaders hold its police force accountable.

It's been an uphill battle; Harrison hasn't been satisfied with the response from city leaders, including the mayor. Harrison came to protest a Council meeting on June 25, in which councilmembers were scheduled to honor outgoing Vallejo Police Chief Andrew Bidou, who retired in the middle of growing protest against the department. Mayor Bob Sampayan told the Vallejo Times-Herald that his retirement had nothing to do with growing criticism of the department.

"Me and my family have come to these meetings time and time again," Harrison told councilmembers in June. "But, I don't think that it's really fair that some of these constituents that come here, and they get congratulated on this side; you'll speak after that and say something. And I was just waiting for one of you guys to say, ‘Hey, I seen what happened and it was horrible.'"

Vallejo councilmembers have declined or not responded to interview requests. City Manager Greg Nyoff did not want to sit for an interview, but responded to a set of questions via email.

"I can only begin to imagine how difficult it is to lose a family member in this way," Nyoff wrote. "Unfortunately, the communications between family members and the City thus far have primarily been during public comment at council meetings, which is not the best venue for productive interactions on an emotionally laden topic such as this."

Oscar Grant's Uncle Bobby speaking at a picnic in Oakland honoring Willie McCoy on Aug. 17, 2019. (Ericka Cruz Guevarra/KQED)

Nyoff invited the families to attend community forums he said the city is planning with the help of the federal Department of Justice's Community Relations Division.

"Every day our police officers head out to serve this community with the goal of doing the right thing, doing right by the public and ensuring our residents and our police officers end their day safely," Nyoff wrote in an email. "Fatal interactions are a tragedy for all involved — though most clearly for the deceased and their loved ones. Each case needs to be reviewed, evaluated and investigated."

Willie McCoy's family is not alone in their fight at Vallejo City Hall for police reforms.

The families of Ronnell Foster and Angel Ramos, a young Latino man shot by police in his mom’s backyard in 2017, have been showing up to City Hall, too.

In 2012, the worst year for police shootings in Vallejo, it was the families of victims like 23-year-old Mario Romero. Those families have been putting up this fight for police accountability in Vallejo before anyone recently started paying close attention.

“I don't want it to happen to another young African or another young Latino, Harrison said. “Not on my watch.”

This story was reported and produced by KQED's local news podcast, The Bay. Click the "listen" button above to hear the episode.  

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