Calif. chief to open inquiry on allegations that officers bent badges to mark killings

A former Vallejo police captain accused the department of firing him for flagging misconduct that included concerns that some officers bent their badges

Megan Cassidy and Josh Koehn
San Francisco Chronicle

VALLEJO, Calif. — Vallejo police Chief Shawny Williams is opening an “official inquiry” into bombshell allegations that officers bent their badges to mark on-duty shootings, a fact-finding mission that he said may lead to an independent investigation.

Williams spoke about the allegations Wednesday, a day after they came to light, and as his department comes under increasing scrutiny over controversial police shootings.

(Photo/Vallejo Police Department)
(Photo/Vallejo Police Department)

Badge bending, Williams said in an interview with The Chronicle, would amount to misconduct.

“It would be considered vandalism of department property,” Williams said. “And if you’re doing that in celebration of a killing or shooting, then it’s completely disturbing, it’s despicable, and I’m not going to tolerate something like that.”

Williams described the inquiry as a necessary precursor to an administrative probe, which could result in disciplinary actions.

“The fact is, we have due process and I need to have real evidence to begin an official investigation,” he said. “I need either some testimonial evidence or physical evidence that establishes that misconduct occurred.”

John Whitney, a former Vallejo police captain, accused the department of firing him for flagging misconduct that included concerns that some officers bent their badges in a ritual to mark fatal shootings. He also said a former police chief told an underling to “burn” a kidnapping victim whom the department wrongly accused of orchestrating a hoax.

The claims were first reported by the news site Open Vallejo.

Williams, who rose through the ranks at the San Jose Police Department, was sworn in as Vallejo’s new top cop in November. His appointment came after Whitney was fired in August.

The chief on Wednesday said he’d never noticed a bent badge on his force, and has not spoken about the allegations to any of the accused officers.

“As a chief, one of the things you have to be is independent of the investigation,” he said.

Vallejo’s mayor and family members of people who have been killed by city police also spoke Wednesday about the allegations, expressing anger but saying they were not surprised by claims of the badge-bending ritual.

“It kind of backs up what everybody has been saying or hearing,” said Marc McCoy, the older brother of Willie McCoy, a 21-year-old man who was shot to death by Vallejo officers last year after he fell asleep with a gun in his lap in his car in a Taco Bell drive-through. “There’s a lot of (police) shootings in Vallejo, and the majority of shootings, they don’t seem to be justified.”

Alicia Saddler, whose brother Angel Ramos was killed by Vallejo police in 2017 after a report of a fight, echoed McCoy’s sentiment. Saddler said she just recently found out that Zachary Jacobsen, the police officer who allegedly fired the fatal shots, has since been promoted.

“I mean, it’s disgusting,” Saddler said. “It’s even more heartbreaking to know they’re celebrating taking someone’s life.”

Alison Berry Wilkinson, an attorney representing Whitney, told The Chronicle that her client flagged the misconduct to Mayor Bob Sampayan, City Manager Greg Nyhoff and then-City Attorney Claudia Quintana before he was released last August after 19 years on the job. Whitney said he became aware of the practice in February 2019 after the fatal shooting of McCoy.

Nyhoff and other city officials did not respond to requests for comment Wednesday. Assistant City Manager Anne Cardwell told The Chronicle on Tuesday that the city was aware of previous complaints — but not current complaints — about badge bending.

Mayor Bob Sampayan, who joined the city’s police force in 1985 and retired as a sergeant after 27 years with the department, said Wednesday that he was “appalled” by the allegations.

“My first thought would be to say I’m sorry (to the community), and that we need to change that culture. I am appalled by that behavior,” Sampayan said. “As a mayor, I want to see that kind of culture go away, and we do not need people who celebrate violence with some kind of ritual.”

The mayor, who was elected in 2016, said he could recall one incident during his career when an officer had a bent corner on his badge, but Sampayan didn’t think anything of it until Whitney came to him with allegations following his dismissal from the department.

Sampayan trained Whitney to be a police officer nearly two decades ago, he said, and he took pride in his trainee rising up the ranks.

“He came to me and told me he had been terminated and I was pretty upset by that, and he shared with me at least that story that I recall there was this bent badge thing, and he explained to me what the significance of this was, and then it struck me — I remember this guy with a bent badge,” Sampayan said.

Other allegations by Whitney included former Police Chief Andrew Bidou allegedly telling a press spokesman in 2015 to “burn” Denise Huskins, a woman who had been kidnapped and raped but whom Bidou wrongfully accused of orchestrating a hoax.

Attempts to reach Bidou were not successful.

Sampayan said he and Bidou didn’t always see eye-to-eye but he always found the chief to be professional, adding that he admired Bidou’s commitment to community-based policing.

But when it came to whose word he trusted, the mayor vouched for Whitney.

“I do not believe John would have fabricated anything like that,” Sampayan said.

Sampayan and the City Council have called for a special prosecutor to handle the investigation into Sean Monterrosa’s death. The 22-year-old San Francisco man was gunned down in a Walgreens parking lot on June 2 when a Vallejo police officer responding to a looting report opened fire with a high-powered rifle, firing five rounds through a windshield as the unmarked police vehicle approached.

Monterrosa allegedly had a hammer but no gun. Police launched a separate investigation after the windshield — a key piece of evidence — was later destroyed.

Solano County District Attorney Krishna Abrams has recused herself from the Monterrosa case, citing an unknown conflict of interest, and Attorney General Xavier Becerra, whose office is conducting a review of the department with a goal of crafting widespread reforms, has also punted on handling the investigation. Officials with the attorney general’s office confirmed Wednesday that the badge allegations could be included in their broader probe.

©2020 the San Francisco Chronicle

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

Recommended for you

Join the discussion

Copyright © 2020 All rights reserved.