Tag Archives: Police unions

Vallejo police officers may go unpunished for bending badges

Vallejo cops accused of bending badges to mark kills may be bulletproof from consequences

San Francisco Chronicle, by Rachel Swan & Demian Bulwa, Aug. 9, 2020
Police investigate a shooting involving a Vallejo officer in 2016. Now the police chief is opening an “official inquiry” into a report that officers have bent their badges to mark on-duty killings. Chris Preovolos / Hearst Newspapers 2016

Vallejo police officers accused of bending their badges to commemorate their killings may be immune from consequences because the city waited too long to investigate, according to legal experts and the attorney for the fired ex-captain who blew the whistle on the purported practice.

Police Chief Shawny Williams said last week that his department is opening an “official inquiry” into allegations by a former police captain that some officers bent the tips of their seven-point stars, which he said would amount to misconduct. “I’m not going to tolerate something like that,” Williams said.

But the state’s Peace Officers’ Bill of Rights sets a one-year deadline for taking disciplinary action against officers after police officials learn of alleged misconduct. That sets up a potential legal fight in Vallejo if badge-bending officers are identified.

The ex-captain, John Whitney, who was second-in-command in the Vallejo force, said through his attorney that he learned of the badge-bending ritual in April 2019, informed then-Chief Andrew Bidou that month and unsuccessfully sought an investigation. Whitney was fired four months later.

His attorney, Alison Berry Wilkinson, said that before his ouster he ordered supervisors 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.

“We’re skeptical that any investigation of badge-bending will be effective in holding any officer accountable, both because they destroyed the evidence of the misconduct, by returning the badges to the officers, and because the statute of limitations has expired,” Wilkinson said.

She said then-Chief Bidou and Vallejo City Manager Greg Nyhoff “were aware of the badge-bending in April 2019 but did nothing. The statute of limitations runs from the date of discovery. Anyone involved can now deny it with impunity.”

Assistant City Manager Anne Cardwell told The Chronicle on July 28 that the city is aware of previous complaints about badge-bending.

“In conferring this evening with the City Manager,” Cardwell wrote, “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 Bidou, who indicated it had been previously investigated and such claims had not been substantiated.”

Attempts to reach Bidou and Nyhoff were unsuccessful Friday. Williams said the investigation would go on regardless of these concerns.

“There is no statute of limitations on moral obligations,” he said. “The ethical standards of conduct and the moral imperative to honor dignity and life exceeds legal statutes of limitations. As chief of police, it is my responsibility to uncover the truth, increase trust through accountability and take corrective actions when warranted.”

A badge-bending investigation could be important for reasons besides discipline, if it led to changes in department policies or mended public distrust. It could also be driven by a desire to improve training, said San Francisco union attorney Gregg Adam, who has represented police officers in disciplinary proceedings and has no involvement with the Vallejo case.

Still, Adam agreed with Wilkinson’s analysis, saying she “is 100% correct.”

“The chief is quoting from the gospel, not the Peace Officers’ Bill of Rights,” Adam said.

California legislators enacted the one-year deadline to force police agencies to promptly address misconduct.

The statute carries several exceptions that can allow the one-year limit to be extended, including if an allegation is also the subject of a pending criminal investigation or lawsuit or if an investigation “involves more than one employee and requires a reasonable extension.” But authorities would need to show they were stymied by one of these factors.

Adam noted that the statute’s clock starts ticking when someone of sufficient authority “knew or should have known” about the alleged misconduct. And the person initiating the investigation doesn’t necessarily have to be a chief or city manager, Adam said. It could have been Whitney himself.

“If a captain knew about it, there’s a strong argument that that’s when the clock started,” he said.

Vallejo Mayor Bob Sampayan insisted there is no statute of limitations on the issue, and that Vallejo is still pursuing it. Bidou’s successor, Chief Williams, who was sworn in in November, has hired an outside investigator to do a “deep dive analysis into this culture of the bent badge,” Sampayan said.

He recalled feeling alarmed and distressed when Whitney approached him with the allegations, some time after he’d purportedly gone to Bidou.

Sampayan is a former police officer who joined Vallejo’s force in 1985 and trained many in the rank and file — including Whitney, he said. He’s frustrated with the recent string of alleged misdeeds in the city.

“If indeed they come up with things, then people will be disciplined,” the mayor said. “My position is because these have all been people of color that have been shot, I’m curious if this is not a civil rights violation” that could initiate an investigation by state Attorney General Xavier Becerra.

“This isn’t right to me — you don’t do this,” Sampayan said. “I’m appalled, I’m angered, and this is not what policing is all about.”

Whitney, who now works for another Bay Area police agency, is planning to sue Vallejo for wrongful termination after filing a legal claim seeking back pay, benefits, attorneys’ fees and $25,000. He says he was targeted for speaking out.

According to his 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 Peace Officers’ Bill of Rights came into play during a 2015 scandal in San Francisco, in which several police officers were accused of exchanging racist, sexist and homophobic text messages.

Sent in 2011 and 2012, the texts included “white power” jeers and slurs against African Americans. Department brass learned about the content when it surfaced during a corruption investigation in 2012, but did not disclose it to the public until March 2015. At that point, Chief Greg Suhr announced he would fire nine of the officers involved, and discipline others.

A San Francisco Superior Court judge halted the disciplinary proceedings that December, however, ruling that the one-year time limit had run out. A state appeals court overturned that decision in 2018. In the 3-0 decision, Justice Martin Jenkins argued that the messages “displayed unacceptable prejudice against members of the communities SFPD is sworn to protect.”

At least one Vallejo police officer involved in a pending disciplinary case is seeking to assert the one-year deadline, according to Solano County Superior Court records.

In a court filing last month on behalf of an unnamed officer, attorney Justin Buffington said he was seeking to prevent the city from “imposing discipline that is time-barred by the relevant statute of limitations.” A judge sealed details of the case, and Buffington did not respond to requests for comment.

Rachel Swan and Demian Bulwa are San Francisco Chronicle staff writers.

Body cam video: Vallejo officer shoots Sean Monterrosa through windshield, then asks if he was armed

Police footage shows Vallejo officer fatally shot SF man from truck’s back seat

San Francisco Chronicle, Megan Cassidy and Anna Bauman July 8, 2020
A screen capture from body camera footage that showed the police officer-involved shooting that resulted in the death of 22-year-old Sean Monterrosa on June 2 in Vallejo.
A screen capture from body camera footage that showed the police officer-involved shooting that resulted in the death of 22-year-old Sean Monterrosa on June 2 in Vallejo. Photo: Vallejo Police Department

Body camera footage released Wednesday shows that the Vallejo police officer who killed a San Francisco man in front of a Walgreens last month was in the back seat of an unmarked pickup truck that had just pulled up to the scene when he fired a high-powered rifle through the windshield.

Sean Monterrosa, 22, died after the 12:30 a.m. shooting on June 2, following a day of rallies and protests against police violence on people of color. The footage released Wednesday shows multiple views from inside the pickup truck, which officers used to respond to reports of looting at the store.

But it does not show Monterrosa as he was shot or at any point before he was struck due to the camera angles, and police said that a store security camera that might have captured the shooting had been disabled by looters.

Police Chief Shawny Williams previously said Monterrosa was on his knees and raising his arms, “revealing what appeared to be the butt of a handgun” when he was shot, but on Wednesday he offered a description that portrayed Monterrosa as an aggressor.

“One of our detectives described what he believed was 22-year-old Sean Monterrosa turning towards the officers in a crouching down, half-kneeling position, as if in preparation to shoot,” Williams said in a recorded statement. “At the same time, the detective saw Mr. Monterrosa move his hands toward his waist area, and grab what appeared to be the butt of a handgun.”

That could not be verified by the videos released Wednesday.

When asked why he changed this description, Williams told The Chronicle that he was clarifying the previous “narrative” that was not accurate.

Williams’ revised statement now aligns with the Vallejo Police Officers’ Association’s description of Monterrosa’s body language just before the shooting.

In a statement, the union wrote, “Rather than continuing his escape, Mr. Monterrosa chose to engage the responding officers. Mr. Monterrosa abruptly pivoted back around toward the officers, crouched into a tactical shooting position, and grabbed an object in his waistband that appeared to be the butt of a handgun. At no time did Mr. Monterrosa make any movements consistent with surrendering.”

The body cam footage from the pickup truck driver, which begins without sound because the body camera has an audio delay, shows the barrel of the rifle inside the vehicle and five rounds being fired as the truck comes to a stop. The officers get out of the car and yell orders at Monterrosa, who was killed by a single bullet.

“What did he point at us?” says the officer who opened fire.

“I don’t know, man,” says the officer who was driving.

“Hey, he pointed a gun at us,” says the officer who opened fire.

Body camera footage shows the officer involved shooting that resulted in the death of Sean Monterrosa on Tuesday, June 2, 2020 in Vallejo, Calif.
Body camera footage shows the officer involved shooting that resulted in the death of Sean Monterrosa on Tuesday, June 2, 2020 in Vallejo, Calif. Photo: Vallejo Police Department

The officer’s name was not released Wednesday after the city’s police union filed for and received a temporary restraining order.

Williams has previously said the officer believed he saw the butt of a handgun poking out near Monterrosa’s waist and opened fire “due to this perceived threat.”

An investigation later revealed Monterrosa had a 15-inch hammer tucked into the pocket of a sweatshirt.

Roughly 100 friends and supporters of the Monterrosa family stood quietly Wednesday afternoon outside Vallejo City Hall, where Michelle and Ashley Monterrosa, the young man’s sisters, exited with their attorneys, John Burris and Melissa Nold. The sisters wiped away tears, and flowers and candles were set up on the steps. People wore shirts that said “Justice for Sean Monterrosa” and held signs that read “defund the police.”

Vacaville opinion on local police reform – good questions for all Solano cities

[BenIndy editor: “Defunding” police can mean different things to different people.  I don’t necessarily agree with Mr. Hunt’s opening statement here, but he goes on to raise important questions that should be addressed here in Benicia.  – R.S.]

Solano Voices: Time to discuss police priorities

, by Curtis Hunt, July 5, 2020

But, we can and should have serious conversations about police reform, militarization and training of officers and the influence public safety unions have on local elections and city councils. We can and should have a discussion about the role of police in combating social issues.

First, we need to challenge the concept that “hiring more police will reduce crime.” Comprehensive crime reduction has three components: prevention, intervention and suppression. 

Second, we can and should have a discussion on the influence of public safety unions on local councils. The public safety unions are very powerful locally and in Sacramento. They offer local candidates campaign support both financially and more importantly with “boots on the ground.” I ran two successful campaigns, one with their support and one without. The one with their support was more enjoyable.

Third, we can and should have a conversation on skyrocketing costs. Some city budgets contribute up to 80% of their total revenue to police and fire departments. The Sacramento police chief recently commented, “We are down 100 cops.“ The follow up question then becomes, “Why is your budget two times higher than it was five years ago?”

Pension benefits, retired health care and incentive pays are exceeding the revenue-generation capacities of local governments. We are paying more and getting less. This is not sustainable.

Increased pension, health care and salaries prevent cities from hiring more personnel. It is time to ask some serious questions. We  need to have an open, respectful conversation.

Fourth, we should have a conversation about the local sales taxes. Promises made, promises broken. Measure M and Measure P pay salary and benefits for police and fire. When Measure M was passed, the first expense was to hire 11 more police officers at end of budget hearings. At this point cities really have no choice. Cites need to use the local sales tax revenue to fund the personnel. Vacaville will defer capital projects, but the results will be the same as these are all ongoing cost.

We can and should have a conversation about increasing the funding for the prevention and intervention aspect of public safety. We should consider a reduction of salary and benefits, and instead support prevention programs. We should consider supporting PAL, The Leaven, The Boys and Girls Club and other evidence-based after-school programs. We need to increase the Parks and Recreation budget to have affordable after-school programs for working parents. We should target gang prevention efforts, mentoring programs. We should look at job development job — training programs operated in challenging neighborhoods. Cities might explore incentives for local businesses to accept training positions.  

I know the police officers are empathetic and compassionate in their effort to address homelessness. But they are not selected, trained or educated in that area. We should have a multidisciplinary team with only one officer and the remaining positions filled with social workers, VA specialists, mental health workers and housing specialists. We should explore the increased use of family support workers for domestic violence. We should use community service officers for more routine calls.

I know this is not an easy conversation. When you bring this up, you get, “You are either with us, or you are  against us” as a response. Mere mention of any discussion would result in “Man, you don’t like cops.” That approach to the issue didn’t work. We need to heal and the only way to do that is start with an open and honest dialogue.

Don’t defund! Talk and make a plan for a more inclusive, comprehensive approach with prevention and intervention strategies.

Curtis Hunt worked for 15 years as a probation officer and provided counseling for delinquent offenders. He finished his career at Solano County managing a countywide prevention program. He severed six years on the Community Services Commission and 12 years on the Vacaville City Council.

While some California police unions promise change, others seek to undo reforms

San Francisco Chronicle, by Joe Garofoli, June 18, 2020
Demonstrators take a knee in an intersection, blocking traffic, and have a moment of silence for 8 minutes and 46 seconds during a protest organized by a group of young people to support Black Lives Matter on June 16, 2020 in Mill Valley, Calif.
Demonstrators take a knee in an intersection, blocking traffic, and have a moment of silence for 8 minutes and 46 seconds during a protest organized by a group of young people to support Black Lives Matter on June 16, 2020 in Mill Valley, Calif. Photo: Kate Munsch / Special to The Chronicle

While three of California’s biggest local police unions are taking out full-page newspaper ads promising to back reforms, other law enforcement organizations have pumped more than $2 million into a November ballot measure that would partially overturn laws that some call models for reforming the criminal justice system.

Police unions have contributed more than half the nearly $4 million raised for the Reducing Crime and Keeping California Safe Act campaign. The ballot initiative would roll back provisions in three measures that were aimed at reducing the state’s prison population, including Proposition 47, a voter-approved 2014 initiative that reclassified several felony crimes as misdemeanors.

The measure would change Prop. 47 by allowing prosecutors to charge a defendant with a felony for a third offense of stealing something worth more than $250. Prop. 47 raised the felony threshold for theft to $950 from $450.

“It is a measured approach to correct the problems we had with Prop. 47,” said Brian Marvel, president of the Peace Officers Research Association of California, the state’s largest law enforcement labor organization, representing more than 77,000 public safety workers.

The ballot measure would also change parts of AB109, a 2011 law that transferred the responsibility for many nonviolent felons from state prisons to county jails. It would require the Board of Parole Hearings to consider an inmate’s whole criminal history when deciding on parole, not just the person’s most recent crime.

The initiative would also alter Proposition 57, a 2016 ballot measure that made it easier for nonviolent felons to win parole. It would expand the list of crimes that would not be eligible for early parole to include felony domestic violence and other violations.

“There were some good pieces in Prop. 47 and 57, but it was overly broad,” Marvel said.

Prop. 47 and the other two measures were part of the response to a 2011 federal court order that California cut the number of inmates in its overcrowded prisons by 34,000 within two years.

In this photo taken Friday, Feb. 13, 2015, Assemblyman Adam Gray, D-Merced talks with Assemblywoman Melissa Melendez, R-Lake Elsinore, at the Capitol in Sacramento, Calif. Four months after California voters approved Proposition 47, which reduced penalties for certain crimes, state lawmakers and law enforcement officials are lining up to repeal portions they say went too far. Gray and Melendez have introduced legislation that would restore the felony charge for stealing guns, if the measure is approved by the Legislature and by voters next year.(AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)
In this photo taken Friday, Feb. 13, 2015, Assemblyman Adam Gray, D-Merced talks with Assemblywoman Melissa Melendez, R-Lake Elsinore, at the Capitol in Sacramento, Calif. Four months after California voters approved Proposition 47, which reduced penalties for certain crimes, state lawmakers and law enforcement officials are lining up to repeal portions they say went too far. Gray and Melendez have introduced legislation that would restore the felony charge for stealing guns, if the measure is approved by the Legislature and by voters next year. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

Besides reducing the prison population, Prop. 47 and AB109 combined to lower the overall arrest rate per 100,000 residents by nearly 20%, according to a 2019 report by the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California.

Prop. 47 has also helped to steer money away from incarceration. The law required that the state spend the money it saved by not imprisoning more nonviolent felons on social and educational programs — an example of “defund the police” initiatives that many reformers are calling for now. This year, the state will redirect nearly $103 million in this way, according to the California Department of Finance.

Reform advocates say the November ballot measure would be difficult to square economically with a state budget that has plunged into the red with the coronavirus pandemic. A report to be released Thursday by the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, a nonpartisan organization in San Francisco that works to reduce reliance on incarceration, found that the changes proposed by the ballot measure could cost California “hundreds of millions of dollars in new annual costs” to take care of more people in prison and monitor more felons on probation.

In San Francisco, the measure could mean up to $7.5 million in additional annual costs, and Alameda County’s total could rise by $26 million, the study found.

“It’s a prison spending scam at a time when we are actively closing prisons and reallocating funds toward what’s needed in communities,” said Dan Newman, a political strategist who is working on the opposition campaign. “They’re doubling down on solidifying their places on the wrong side of history at a critical moment.”

Demonstrators march onto a Hwy 101 overpass during a protest organized by a group of young people to support Black Lives Matter on June 16, 2020 in Mill Valley, Calif.
Demonstrators march onto a Hwy 101 overpass during a protest organized by a group of young people to support Black Lives Matter on June 16, 2020 in Mill Valley, Calif. Photo: Kate Munsch / Special to The Chronicle

The ballot measure’s supporters started the initiative campaign long before the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd touched off anti-brutality protests across the country, and they’re not changing their approach now.

“Why should we? We just want reform, too” said Kelli Reid, a consultant to the campaign.

The campaign’s website says the past decade’s changes have led to “an explosion of serial theft and an inability of law enforcement to prosecute these crimes effectively.” The initiative’s proponents say they want to change parole rules because “parolees who repeatedly violate the terms of their parole currently face few consequences, allowing them to remain on the street.”

“If I stab you or beat you with a baseball bat, those are considered nonviolent crimes under the penal code (now),” said Assemblyman Jim Cooper, D-Elk Grove (Sacramento County), a former Sacramento County sheriff’s captain who supports the measure. “These are not crazy things we’re proposing.”

A 2018 study by the Public Policy Institute of California, however, found “no evidence that violent crime increased as a result of Proposition 47.” The report did find that “it may have contributed to a rise in larceny thefts, which increased by roughly 9 percent” from 2014 to 2016.

Some leading Prop. 47 advocates see a contrast between the ballot measure and promises by local police unions to back changes in law enforcement.