Vallejo Police Chief Launches 'Official Inquiry' Into Alleged Badge Bending Tradition to Mark Fatal Shootings

Demonstrators gather outside of the Vallejo Police Station after a march from City Hall demanding justice for Sean Monterrosa on July 11, 2020. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Updated 5:30 p.m. Wednesday

Vallejo's police chief said he's "deeply disturbed" by allegations that officers bent points on their star-shaped badges to commemorate and count the people they've shot and killed in the line of duty, and is launching an official inquiry.

Revelations that some officers bent points on their police stars as a "badge of honor" after killing someone were first reported by independent news organization Open Vallejo on Tuesday.

In a retaliation claim with the city, John Whitney, a 19-year department veteran, contends he was fired last year for internally exposing the alleged badge-bending tradition and other misconduct.

“Celebrating the killing of a human being is never acceptable," Vallejo Police Chief Shawny Williams said in an interview Wednesday. "If there’s any credible evidence found, I will expand the inquiry into an official investigation, and I want our community to know that misconduct will never be tolerated under my administration.”

The new allegations are the latest explosive charges against a department still reeling from the recent, high-profile fatal police shooting of Sean Monterrosa and the subsequent destruction of evidence in the case.

According to Open Vallejo, at least 14 of the 51 current and former Vallejo police officers involved in fatal shootings since 2000 had their badges bent by a colleague. In recent months, Vallejo residents and activists have repeated the phrase "fire the fatal 14," in reference to officers involved in more than one fatal shooting.

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In a video posted to Facebook Wednesday in response to the new allegations, David Harrison, the cousin of Willie McCoy, who was shot and killed by VPD in February 2019, is calling on Gov. Gavin Newsom to "clean house."

"We're not just seeking some type of civil lawsuit," Harrison said. "We're seeking real justice where actually these police officers are arrested and charged."

"This is not bad policing," he added. "This is criminal action."

Meanwhile, at their regularly scheduled meeting Tuesday, members of the Vallejo City Council were notably mum about Whitney's misconduct allegations, even as they spent a considerable amount of time discussing why the Police Department needed more funding.

"They were talking about crime and how the crime is going up. Well, the biggest criminals in Vallejo are the public officials," Harrison said.

Despite pushback from members of the community, the City Council voted 6-1 to adopt a new budget that allocates more than $50 million — nearly half of the city's general fund — to the Police Department.

An overwhelming number of people giving public comment at the meeting advocated for the defunding the department and reallocating those funds to other city programs. Some specifically referenced the badge-bending tradition, arguing more money would not improve the department's systemic problems.

At a press conference Wednesday, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, who last month opened a review of the Vallejo Police Department’s policies and practices, declined to address the badge-bending allegations.

The Attorney General's office said in a written response to questions that "local authorities would be best positioned to address any inquiries on the matter at this time."

Mayor Bob Sampayan, a former Vallejo Police sergeant, told Open Vallejo he knew about the badge-bending tradition, but made no mention of it at the City Council meeting.

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Melissa Nold, an attorney representing the families of Willie McCoy and Sean Monterrosa in lawsuits against the city, said she wants to know how many other officials knew about the badge-bending allegation, and why it was never explained to the community.

"It’s just further evidence of the culture of policing and the level at which the city and city officials were aware of some of these behaviors," Nold said. "So one of the bigger things that we’re focusing in on specifically with the McCoy case right now, because that’s already filed and in existence, is the evidence that the city itself knew about the conduct of its officers and did nothing to stop it."

On Tuesday, the City Council also voted to create a police oversight commission and a police auditor.

But Nold said the city needs to do much more than that to reform the embattled department, starting with firing the officers involved in multiple fatal shootings.

"The demand, ultimately, we’ve been saying all along, is get rid of the fatal 14," Nold said. "You can’t reform without removal."