[News] Vallejo police bend badges to mark fatal shootings

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Sat Aug 1 12:56:48 EDT 2020


https://openvallejo.org/2020/07/28/vallejo-police-bend-badge-tips-to-mark-fatal-shootings/
Vallejo
police bend badges to mark fatal shootings
By Geoffrey King | July 28, 2020
------------------------------
[image: Steve Darden, a member of the Vallejo Police Department Honor
Guard, is seen at the swearing-in ceremony for Chief Shawny Williams on
Nov. 12, 2019. He has participated in four fatal shootings, two as a
primary shooter. Darden was promoted to lieutenant in February.]

Geoffrey King / Open Vallejo
Steve Darden, a member of the Vallejo Police Department Honor Guard, is
seen at the swearing-in ceremony for Chief Shawny Williams on Nov. 12,
2019. He has participated in four fatal shootings, two as a primary
shooter. Darden was promoted to lieutenant in February.

They call it, “The Badge of Honor.” For a generation, a secretive clique
within the Vallejo Police Department has commemorated fatal shootings with
beers, backyard barbecues, and by bending the points of their badges each
time they kill in the line of duty, an investigation by Open Vallejo has
found. The custom was so exclusive, some officers involved in fatal
shootings were never told of its existence.

But senior law enforcement and government officials say everything changed
when a police captain tried to end the practice following the fatal
shooting of 20-year-old Willie McCoy  in February 2019. Over the next six
months, the tradition became known at the highest levels of Vallejo city
government and the district attorney’s office.

The captain who pushed for an investigation, John Whitney, would soon be
out of a job. A former SWAT team commander with two master’s degrees,
Whitney says he was forced out of the department after raising concerns
about the badge-bending tradition and other misconduct. He filed a
retaliation claim against the city in March.

“The community we serve will lose faith in us,” Whitney told Open Vallejo.
“This practice needs to end.”

At the time of Whitney’s firing, nearly 40% of officers on the force had
been in at least one shooting, Open Vallejo research shows. More than a
third of those had participated in two or more. The department employs
about 100 sworn personnel.

This article is based on interviews with more than 20 current and former
government officials as well as public employment data, post-shooting
investigative findings, court and other public records, archived news
accounts, and hundreds of photographs taken before and after fatal
shootings. Many of those interviewed spoke on condition of anonymity to
describe sensitive discussions between and within their agencies. Several
expressed significant concerns about retaliation
<https://www.sfchronicle.com/bayarea/otisrtaylorjr/article/Something-s-happening-in-Vallejo-and-it-13730429.php>.
Open Vallejo reached out individually to each officer named in this story,
most of whom either declined to comment or did not respond.

Of the 51 current and former Vallejo police officers who have been involved
in fatal shootings since 2000, at least 14 had their badges bent by a
colleague afterward, sources familiar with the tradition confirmed. One
source told Open Vallejo the number could be much higher.
[image: Steve Darden, Vallejo's most lethal officer of the past 20 years,
said allegations he bent his badge are "a lie." He is seen here in a Mar.
24, 2020 Vallejo Police Department Facebook post announcing his promotion
to lieutenant. Vallejo's shooters typically bend their badges at the 3
o'clock and 4 o'clock points.]

Vallejo Police Department
<https://facebook.com/VallejoPD/photos/a.243856312300200/3232854853400316/>
Steve Darden, Vallejo’s most lethal officer of the past 20 years, said
allegations he bent his badge are “a lie.” He is seen here in a Mar. 24,
2020 Vallejo Police Department Facebook post announcing his promotion to
lieutenant. Vallejo’s shooters typically bend their badges at the 3 o’clock
and 4 o’clock points.

At least seven officers’ badges have multiple bends, according to officers
who have seen them and photos obtained by Open Vallejo. They belong to some
of the department’s most prolific shooters, including Sean Kenney, Joe
McCarthy and Steve Darden, a member of Vallejo’s command staff who was put
in charge of the city’s Hostage Negotiation Team after being promoted
<https://openvallejo.org/wp-admin/post.php?post=997> to lieutenant in
February. Together these men account for nearly a third of the department’s
30 fatal shootings of the past two decades.

“My badge has never been bent. That’s a lie,” Darden said when reached by
phone Tuesday, referring questions to the department’s public information
officer. Kenney and McCarthy declined to comment.

In 2003, then-Vallejo Police Chief Robert Nichelini replaced the
department’s brass badges with plain sterling silver seven-point stars like
those worn by Oakland police, his former agency. The change may have
enabled Vallejo’s ritual, as the softer metal is easier to bend. In
addition, Vallejo officers typically wear work uniforms bearing an
embroidered patch in the course of their normal duties. The subtlety and
precision with which Vallejo’s silver badges can be bent, and the relative
rarity of seeing one, have helped shield the Badge of Honor from scrutiny.

Nichelini denied having knowledge of the practice, and told Open Vallejo he
“would never permit unauthorized modification of badges.”

“I believe this is a figment of someone’s imagination,” he wrote via email.

Vallejo Mayor Bob Sampayan, a retired police sergeant, said he saw bent
badges during Nichelini’s tenure.

“When I was on the police department, I did notice that there were a couple
of officers that had bent badge tips,” he told Open Vallejo. “I had no idea
what happened. Nobody said anything back then.”

But Sampayan has since become aware of the meaning behind the department’s
badge-bending ritual, which he confirmed to this publication. And although
Sampayan said City Manager Greg Nyhoff had been informed of the custom,
Nyhoff denied knowledge through his deputy.

“We don’t have any information about a current practice by our officers
related to badges,” Assistant City Manager Anne Cardwell wrote on behalf of
Nyhoff. “We take any claims of misconduct seriously and will follow up with
the appropriate investigatory measures, as well as take appropriate action
based on information provided.”

   - Dustin Joseph, right, killed Mario Romero on Sept. 2, 2012, and
   William Heinze on Mar. 20, 2013.
   - Josh Coleman, right,) killed William Heinze on Mar. 20, 2013.
   - Sean Kenney killed Anton Barrett, Sr. on May 28, 2012; Mario Romero on
   Sept. 2, 2012; and Jeremiah Moore on Oct. 21, 2012.

Earlier this month, state Attorney General Xavier Becerra announced
<https://oag.ca.gov/news/press-releases/attorney-general-becerra-announces-agreement-review-and-reform-vallejo-police>
an “expansive review” of the department’s policies, practices and
procedures. Becerra added
<https://oag.ca.gov/news/press-releases/attorney-general-becerra-issues-statement-california-department-justice-stepping>
a separate criminal probe on July 17, after officers destroyed key evidence
in the killing of 22-year-old Sean Monterrosa last month. Nichelini’s son
Michael, a lieutenant who heads Vallejo’s police union, is on leave from
the department over his alleged role in the evidence destruction.

Intervention by the attorney general comes amid a cascade of troubling
revelations over the culture within the department
<https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/jun/13/vallejo-california-police-violence-sean-monterrosa>,
whose roughly 100 officers kill more people per capita than all but two
other cities in California, a 2019 investigation
<https://www.nbcbayarea.com/news/local/vallejo-police-highest-rate-of-residents-shot-per-capita-in-northern-california-nbc-bay-area-probes-causes/190344/>
by NBC Bay Area found. Current and former employees describe a department
where bullies thrive, whistleblowers are dealt with harshly, and the
pressure to shoot and kill civilians is strong.

“Some days I feel like I work with a bunch of thugs who take pleasure out
of hurting people,” a current member of the department told Open Vallejo on
condition they not be named.
*‘Kind of like a notch on the bedpost’*

While reporting this story, Open Vallejo received a series of threatening
emails from an anonymous account using the name, “Tariq Aziz.” Law
enforcement sources believe the author is a high-ranking Vallejo official
with knowledge of the badge-bending tradition. This is consistent with Open
Vallejo’s analysis of the emails and other evidence.

After several failed attempts to get a response, the author of the emails
addressed the subject of this story directly.

“The cops who shoot someone bend the tabs on their badges,” he wrote on
April 5. “Kind of like a notch on the bedpost. It’s an indicator to each
other how many hoodlums they’ve shot. They think it’s funny.”

“Ask Whitney,” the message continued. “He knows all this stuff. It’s why
he’s gone.”
*A symbol of public faith*

Sources say not every officer who kills is invited to participate in the
Badge of Honor ritual. The vetting process is stringent, if
straightforward. Those who kill meet its first requirement. Those who can
be trusted not to talk fulfill the second.

For those invited into the group, a fatal shooting — their own or a
colleague’s — is often followed by a barbecue or other celebration,
according to current and former police department employees. The actual
bending of badges occurs there or at roll call, an official law enforcement
briefing that takes place at the beginning or end of a shift. Photographs
indicate the first bend is often applied at the 4 o’clock point of a new
initiate’s badge.

*“I recognize the badge of my office as a symbol of public faith, and I
accept it as a public trust to be held so long as I am true to the ethics
of police service.” *
*— The Law Enforcement Code of Ethics, from the 2020 Vallejo Police
Department Policy Manual
<https://twitter.com/OpenVallejo/status/1281374926151102464>*

The sweep of Vallejo’s badge-bending tradition might never have come to
light but for the fatal shooting of Willie McCoy
<https://www.kqed.org/news/11768008/the-life-and-death-of-willie-mccoy>, a
20-year-old musician and community college student who fell asleep behind
the wheel of his Mercedes while waiting in a Taco Bell drive-thru on Feb.
9, 2019.

When honking car horns failed to rouse McCoy, a restaurant employee called
911, seeking help. “He’s unresponsive,” the employee explained to a
dispatcher. “I’ve already had, like, people try to knock on the window. I
have no idea what’s going on.” Officers were sent to conduct a wellness
check
<https://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/31/us/willie-mccoy-shooting-video.html>.

Officer Anthony Romero-Cano was first to the scene, followed seconds later
by Officer Jordon Patzer. Standing inches from the car, their Glock 17
pistols pointed at McCoy, they noted a gun in his lap. Romero-Cano
suggested breaking the driver’s side window and pulling McCoy out.

“No, just wait here until we get more people,” Patzer responded. A
second-generation Vallejo police officer, Patzer’s father Jeremie killed
two men and left another critically injured during his six-year career with
the department. Current and former colleagues say at least one point of the
elder Patzer’s badge is bent.

Officer Mark Thompson soon arrived
<https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OKoOLVjdzbY>. Thompson shot a man, who
survived, in 2006. The next year, he Tased another man to death. He has at
least one bend in his badge, according to two sources familiar with the
matter.

Thompson and Patzer did not respond to requests for comment.

“He’s got a gun in his lap,” Romero-Cano told him. “The magazine’s—
magazine’s half out, so he’s only got one shot if he shoots.” The officers
discussed pulling McCoy out of the car. “I don’t even want to give him a
chance,” Romero-Cano said <https://youtu.be/lDThFQl4OtU?t=129>.

“If he reaches for it, you know what to do,” Thompson replied before trying
the locked driver’s side door.

Vallejo Police Department
A still image from Ofc. Ryan McMahon’s body-worn camera shows the aftermath
of the Feb. 9, 2019 killing of Willie McCoy by Vallejo police.

Officer Colin Eaton arrived and took up a position near the front of
McCoy’s car. Officers shone their weapon-mounted flashlights into the
vehicle for the next two minutes before McCoy, who appeared to be asleep or
nearly so, reached up with his right hand and scratched his left shoulder.
Patzer, Thompson, Romero-Cano, and Eaton began yelling commands. At that
moment, Officer Bryan Glick pulled his police SUV in front of McCoy’s car,
stepped out, and drew his weapon. Seconds later, the officers fired 54
rounds at McCoy.

A sixth officer, Ryan McMahon, arrived on scene just as McCoy started to
stir. He ran up behind Glick and fired one .45-caliber round toward the
car. For this, McMahon would collect his second bend in less than a year,
law enforcement sources told Open Vallejo.

McMahon collected his first bend, sources say, for killing
<https://www.cityofvallejo.net/cms/One.aspx?portalId=13506&pageId=15584679>
Ronell Foster after a brief foot chase on the night of Feb. 13, 2018.
McMahon told investigators he stopped Foster, who had been riding his
bicycle without a light
<https://www.sfchronicle.com/bayarea/otisrtaylorjr/article/Vallejo-cop-wanted-to-educate-a-bicyclist-13830311.php>
in Vallejo’s quiet downtown, to “educate
<https://www.sfchronicle.com/bayarea/otisrtaylorjr/article/Vallejo-cop-wanted-to-educate-a-bicyclist-13830311.php>”
him about traffic safety. Foster rode away, fell off his bicycle and ran.
McMahon chased Foster into the courtyard of a church on Carolina Street,
where he struck Foster repeatedly with his duty flashlight. Foster broke
free, turned, and tried to get away. McMahon fired seven rounds, striking
Foster in the back and the back of his head.

Asked by investigators how far away Foster was when shot, McMahon replied,
“point blank.” A 33-year-old father
<https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2019/may/07/vallejo-police-shooting-bike-ronell-foster-willie-mccoy>
of two young children, Foster did not have a weapon.

McMahon denied his badge is bent through his attorney, Justin Buffington.
Asked whether McMahon’s badge had been bent during the first six months of
2019, Buffington replied, “Not that I ever saw.”
[image: Ofc. McMahon's .45-caliber Glock 21 pistol is seen in an evidence
photo after he used it to kill Ronell Foster, a 33-year-old father of two,
on Feb. 13, 2018.]

Vallejo Police Department
Ofc. McMahon’s .45-caliber Glock 21 pistol is seen in an evidence photo
after he used it to kill Ronell Foster, a 33-year-old father of two, on
Feb. 13, 2018.

Krishna Abrams, who was elected district attorney in 2014, cleared McMahon
of wrongdoing in January. Her office denied knowledge of the badge-bending.

“We don’t have any credible evidence of that,” Solano County Chief Deputy
District Attorney Paul Sequeira told Open Vallejo. “We don’t respond to
rumors. Nobody brought that to us.”

But Abrams participated in meetings where the custom was discussed months
before clearing McMahon, according to two high-ranking law enforcement
officials who work at different agencies.
*‘A negative culture’*

The Foster and McCoy shootings troubled some members of the department.
They believed that if officers had taken cover and used time and distance
to their advantage, McCoy could have been taken safely into custody. One
police official who spoke with Open Vallejo on condition of anonymity said
the incident resembled “an execution.”

On March 29, 2019, Vallejo released body camera footage of McCoy’s killing
in response to a public records request
<https://twitter.com/OpenVallejo/status/1110669298823913472> by this
publication. It was only the second time
<https://www.mercurynews.com/2018/07/10/video-police-release-body-cam-footage-in-fatal-i-80-officer-involved-shooting/>
video of a Vallejo police shooting had ever been publicly disclosed. The
officers’ actions captured in the video footage garnered worldwide
condemnation.

As pressure mounted from within and outside the department, Chief Andrew
Bidou told Whitney, the captain who would soon become a whistleblower, to
address the badge-bending at a meeting with command staff. When it came
time to discuss the badges, Bidou stood up, led civilian staff out of the
room, and did not return, Whitney said.

Whitney told Open Vallejo that he addressed the badge-bending with those in
attendance, which included all officers above the rank of corporal. Whitney
then ordered the officers to inspect their subordinates’ uniforms and
collect any bent badges.

Ten came back within the first hour and were placed in a small cardboard
box in the office of Bidou’s executive assistant.

But Bidou had plans to retire and rejoin the city as interim chief,
effectively doubling his pay
<https://www.sfchronicle.com/bayarea/otisrtaylorjr/article/Vallejo-police-chief-will-walk-away-with-a-13761301.php>
to $40,000 a month. Whitney said Bidou told him that the cost of repairing
so many badges could raise suspicions within the city’s finance department
and cause him to lose the interim position. The chief ordered the badges
returned to the officers, who were instructed to fix them. It is not known
whether any officers actually did.

Bidou’s plan to serve as interim chief fell short after it was found to
violate California’s retirement rules. Former Fairfield police chief Joe
Allio was appointed as interim chief; Bidou now works for PG&E.

Whitney said he then brought his concerns about the badges to Vallejo City
Manager Greg Nyhoff, Mayor Bob Sampayan, and then-City Attorney Claudia
Quintana
<https://openvallejo.org/2019/08/21/chief-judge-vallejo-city-attorneys-letter-to-court-was-improper/>
in several private meetings in April 2019. (Quintana denied knowing about
the bent badges.)

Interim Chief Allio also knew about the badge-bending, Sampayan said. Two
senior government officials independently confirmed that Allio was briefed
while serving as interim chief in 2019. (Vallejo recently brought Allio
back to serve as interim assistant police chief.)

But the only person disciplined over the scandal was Whitney. He was fired
in August of last year, after nearly 20 years with the department.

The department opened an internal affairs investigation into allegations
that he improperly handled information. Though he was cleared of those
allegations, he was terminated for removing family photographs and other
personal data from his work phone during the investigation, according to a
claim he filed with the city on March 24, a first step before filing a
lawsuit.

In the claim, Whitney contends he was fired in retaliation for speaking up
about the department’s culture of impunity.

In an undated letter attached as an exhibit to Whitney’s claim, Sampayan
wrote, “Frankly, I believe that because John spoke out about a negative
culture on the Vallejo Police Department, his reputation was soiled by
those who did not want any ‘dirty laundry’ aired.”

Sampayan elaborated in a phone call Tuesday.

“As a retired police sergeant, a police officer for four decades, I find it
just absolutely offensive,” the mayor said. “It shows absolutely no respect
for the uniform, for the community you were sworn to protect.”

*Brian Krans contributed to this report.*
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