Stunning allegation against Vallejo police: Officers bent badges to mark people they killed
San Francisco Chronicle, by Anna Bauman & Demian Bulwa, 7/29/20
A former Vallejo police captain is accusing the department of firing him for flagging misconduct that included concerns that some officers bent their badges to mark fatal shootings and that a former police chief told an underling to “burn” a kidnapping victim he wrongly accused of orchestrating a hoax.
The captain, John Whitney, said that some officers would bend one tip of their seven-point star for each of their killings. He said he became aware of the practice in February 2019 after police fatally shot Willie McCoy in a Taco Bell drive-through, where he had passed out with a gun in his lap.
Whitney brought his misconduct concerns 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, his lawyer, Alison Berry Wilkinson, told The Chronicle.
According to his claim, Whitney was released “for expressing his professional opinions on a variety of misconduct issues within the Police Department.” The claim seeks back pay, benefits, attorneys’ fees and $25,000 for Whitney, who now works for another Bay Area police agency.
The city did not respond to the claim, filed Feb. 21 and amended March 24. Claims are considered rejected if not answered within 45 days, meaning Whitney can now file a lawsuit.
The claim does not mention the badge-bending allegations, but Wilkinson said they will be part of the lawsuit to come.
“I’m not able to speak to those allegations at this time,” Brittany Jackson, a spokeswoman for the Vallejo Police Department, said Tuesday evening. She said Police Chief Shawny Williams, who took over in November, was not immediately available.
Nyhoff and City Attorney Randy Risner did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Assistant City Manager Anne Cardwell told The Chronicle that the city was aware of previous complaints about badge bending.
“I am not aware of any current complaints related to badge bendings being filed with Human Resources, City Manager’s Office or City Attorney’s Office,” she said. “In conferring this evening with the City Manager, he noted that the Mayor had advised him last year regarding rumors of such a prior practice in years past at the Police Dept., and that he, the City Manager, then immediately consulted with former Police Chief (Andrew) Bidou, who indicated it had been previously investigated and such claims had not been substantiated.
“The City takes any claims or credible information regarding potential misconduct seriously and we will follow up with the appropriate investigatory measures, as well as take appropriate action based on information provided.
“Finally, as it relates to former Captain John Whitney, the City cannot comment on personnel matters and/or ongoing legal actions.”
The allegations by Whitney were first reported Tuesday by Open Vallejo.
According to Whitney’s claim, the city tied his firing to an investigation into a leak of confidential information, saying he improperly erased data from his phone amid the probe. Whitney said he had only erased personal information; he was exonerated in the leak case, Wilkinson said.
The allegations come as the Vallejo force faces intense scrutiny over a string of shootings in recent years. The state is investigating the department’s disposal of a bullet-shattered windshield in the June 2 police killing of San Francisco resident Sean Monterrosa, while separately reviewing the department’s policies and practices.
Whitney’s claim states that, before his termination, he had raised concerns about issues, including a car stop involving the cousin of Willie McCoy and the “embezzlement of time” by a high-ranking officer.
More explosively, Whitney said that, in 2015, former Police Chief Bidou told the department’s then-spokesman, Lt. Kenny Park, to “burn that bitch” — an alleged reference to kidnap victim Denise Huskins. Bidou retired last year.
The claim also states that Bidou told Whitney to “delete text messages on his cell phone so that they would not be downloadable during the litigation involving the Huskins’ kidnapping.” The city ultimately paid the couple $2.5 million in a settlement.
Bidou could not be reached for comment late Tuesday.
Huskins was kidnapped from her boyfriend’s Vallejo home and held for ransom before her captor let her go two days later. Rather than looking for the attacker, Vallejo police accused Huskins and her boyfriend of faking the whole thing. At a news conference, Park called it an “orchestrated event and not a kidnapping.”
The claim concludes that Whitney was “also retaliated against for truthfully answering questions posed by the City Manager and the Mayor concerning ongoing issues within the Police Department.”
After Whitney’s release, Mayor Sampayan wrote a recommendation letter for Whitney, saying, “Frankly, I believe that because John spoke out about a negative culture on the Vallejo Police Department, his reputation was soiled by those that did not want any ‘dirty laundry’ aired.” The letter was attached to the claim.
Wilkinson said that when Whitney found out about the badge-bending, he sought an investigation of the alleged practice. She said Whitney subsequently ordered supervisors at a meeting of the department’s command staff to inspect officers’ uniforms and collect any bent badges.
After 10 badges were turned in and held in a box in the office of Bidou’s executive assistant, Wilkinson said, Bidou told Whitney the repair costs could raise suspicion and cost him his job. Instead, the chief had the badges returned to officers, who were to fix them on their own, Wilkinson said.
“John Whitney repeatedly challenged unethical practices at Vallejo PD, including badge bending and destruction of evidence,” Wilkinson said. “ The City tried to silence him by firing him. Only the Mayor was willing to speak the truth about why Whitney was fired. No one else was willing to do the right thing.”