In Vallejo, California, a former police captain claims a secret ritual that triggered an independent investigation by the city’s fiercely contested police: some officers who have been involved in fatal shootings since 2000 each time bend the tips of their star-shaped badges to mark them You killed someone on duty.
Former Vallejo police captain John Whitney, a 19-year-old department veteran and former SWAT commander who was released last August, first described the alleged tradition in an interview published by Open Vallejo this week.
According to the unaffiliated news agency, officers involved in fatal shootings tagged these incidents with garden grills and were initiated into a “secret clique”
Vallejo, a community in the Bay Area with 122,000 inhabitants, has been in the spotlight of its high number of fatal police shootings in recent years – 18 since 2010 – compared to other California cities. Last month, Prosecutor General Xavier Becerra announced that the Justice Department would conduct a “comprehensive review” of the Vallejo Police Department after excessive legal violence and local residents’ requests for an external investigation into the actions of the officials were requested.
Police chief Shawny Williams, who became the first African American to head the department after the resignation of former boss Andrew Bidou in November, said on Friday he was calling for an outside investigation that could start next week and take several months. He said the formal investigation followed his first investigation into the allegations.
“We have received evidence from two different sources within the Vallejo Police Department that the badge has been bent,” Williams said in a statement. “Because of these very worrying and worrying allegations, I asked that an independent external investigation be carried out 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 later had their badges bent by a colleague as part of an “exclusive custom” that even some officers took part in the deadly shootings were never told, existed.
After his release, Whitney filed an amended retaliation suit against the city in March, but did not mention the tradition of badge bending. Whitney commented through his lawyer Alison Berry Wilkinson, who said that she intends to file an illegal termination lawsuit next week, which includes what he knew, and described him as a whistleblower.
“We are grateful that Chief Williams condemned this deeply disturbing practice, but we are skeptical because evidence may have been destroyed since then, and this will give officials involved the opportunity to refuse the practice with impunity,” she said.
Wilkinson said her client tried to speak out “against the negative culture” within the department, including badges, and was then forced to do so.
Police captains have an “arbitrary” job in the department, she said, but she is preparing a lawsuit because Whitney believes that he was treated improperly and his “whistleblowing activities” played a role in his forced departure.
“They definitely wanted to belittle him because he was committed to what was right,” said Wilkinson.
The city did not respond to Whitney’s retaliation claim that he had “his professional opinion on a variety of police misconduct issues”. Whitney said that his dismissal was related to an investigation into leaked information and was accused of improperly handling information. Wilkinson said he had been clarified in the leaky case, but Whitney had still been released and learned that this 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, which was also attached to Whitney’s claim. “To be honest, I think John, because he talked about a negative culture in the Vallejo Police Department, tarnished his reputation with those who didn’t want to broadcast” dirty laundry, “the letter said.
A city spokeswoman said Thursday that Sampayan was unavailable to comment on what Whitney described in his retaliation suit or the tradition of badge bending.
Efforts to reach Bidou, the retired chief of police, on Thursday and Friday were not immediately successful, and an email to the Vallejo Police Officers’ Association was not immediately returned on Friday. His current employer, Pacific Gas & Electric, declined to provide Bidou, but said in a statement that the company “is aware of these serious allegations that do not reflect our corporate values or our employees’ expectations.”
In a statement, city manager Greg Nyhoff said Sampayan had alerted him to the “worrying allegations” last year and asked him to ask Bidou about the allegation of badge bending. The then chief told Nyhoff that he had previously investigated the allegation and that it “was not substantiated,” said Nyhoff.
“The city takes any allegations or credible information regarding potential misconduct seriously,” added Nyhoff. “Chief Williams is currently following past allegations that all investigative measures have been taken and will take the appropriate and necessary action based on the information provided.”
Williams said earlier this week that he would conduct an investigation to “help me better understand the culture of the department and take corrective action.”
“I want our community to know that misconduct will never be tolerated under my administration,” he added.
Wilkinson said Whitney found out about badge bending in April 2019, two months after the rapist Willie McCoy (20) was shot dead. McCoy slept in a fast food restaurant in his car and restaurant staff said they couldn’t wake him up. The police said they discovered his car was locked and on the move and saw a pistol on his lap. While McCoy was unresponsive, local officials developed a plan to lock his car in the passage to prevent irregular movements when he woke up. Finally, they saw McCoy move, according to the bodycam video of the incident.
When McCoy woke up, six of the officers opened fire at 55 rounds, saying they feared he would reach for a gun.
An investigation into the behavior of officials during the shootout remains open.
After Whitney found out about the badge bending, “he wanted to do an investigation at this time and also wanted this very disturbing practice to be stopped and condemned,” said Wilkinson.
Given his senior position, Whitney had ordered superiors at the end of a meeting to inspect the badges and collect bent badges from their subordinates. Ten were found, Wilkinson said.
But, according to Whitney, Bidou had returned the badges to officials who were responsible for replacing or repairing them, Wilkinson said.
“What happened to these badges is not known to my customer,” she said, adding that given the time that has passed, all evidence of the alleged custom of bending badges has now disappeared.
Michael Nichelini, president of the Vallejo Police Officers Association, described the allegation as “ridiculous notion” and said that any appearance that badges were intentionally bent was wrong because “they come this way”.
“All of these recent attacks against Vallejo police officers are fabricated lies that are aligned with a narrative that doesn’t exist,” he said in a statement.
Nichelini has been on vacation since July 15, related to the destruction of a police vehicle windshield that the department has not received, and is considered evidence of an official being killed by a police officer in June of a 22-year-old man. The Becerra office announced this month that it would launch an investigation into the destruction of evidence.
However, his office made a comment on the allegations of badge bending practice to Vallejo City officials.
Sampayan, who retired from Vallejo Police Department in 2006 as a sergeant, said he remembered an incident during his career when an officer bent a corner of his badge but didn’t know what it represented. He told the Vallejo Times-Herald that “changes had been made” to the practice after more than a year ago, officials were made aware of the practice.
“I’m not very happy with what it represents,” he said. “Advertising and celebrating that you shot someone is absolutely disgusting. There’s no place for this kind of ad.”
Kori McCoy, an older brother of Willie McCoy, said he was not shocked by the allegations and confirmed that the police department “needed to be examined from the top down”.
“We said from day one that Willie was executed,” said McCoy.