The records were destroyed in early 2021 before their destruction was allowed under city policy.Vallejo Sun, by Scott Morris, December 1, 2022
VALLEJO – The city of Vallejo “inadvertently” destroyed audio and video records in five police shooting investigations from the department’s most violent two-year span before the material would have been publicly released as required by law, according to the Vallejo City Attorney’s Office.
The records were destroyed in early 2021 before their destruction was allowed under city policy. Assistant City Attorney Katelyn Knight revealed that they had been destroyed in a series of emails in response to several public records requests for audio and video materials by the Vallejo Sun.
Evidence destruction logs released by the city indicate that the evidence was destroyed on Jan. 11, Jan. 13 and Jan. 20, 2021, and each item indicates that the city attorney’s office approved their disposal. The Sun requested all police shooting records in the possession of Vallejo police in early 2019.
The records could have provided insight to one of the department’s most violent and scrutinized periods, when Vallejo police killed six people in 2012. Some of the records destroyed were from one of the most controversial shootings in the department’s history: the killing of Mario Romero by Officers Sean Kenney and Dustin Joseph on Sept. 2, 2012.
Romero was sitting with his brother-in-law in a parked car when officers approached them and allegedly told them to put their hands up. Kenney and Joseph fired at the car, reloaded and fired again, only stopping after Romero slumped back into the driver’s seat. Family members who witnessed the shooting say they saw Kenney continue to fire while standing on the car’s hood. Romero was shot 30 times and died at a hospital. In 2015, Vallejo paid a $2 million settlement to Romero’s family.
The records destroyed in the Romero investigation include recordings of interviews with Kenney and Joseph, interviews with witnesses, documents from those interviews and video of officers canvassing the neighborhood for witnesses, among other evidence, according to destruction logs released by the city.
According to the city’s retention schedule, it is required to retain such records for five years following closure of the case, well short of the 25 years recommended by the state Department of Justice. In the Romero shooting, the administrative investigation was not reviewed by then-police Chief Andrew Bidou until September 2016. The city destroyed the records on Jan. 11, 2021, less than five years after Bidou’s review, while several requests for the material were pending.
Knight said that the other shootings affected were the fatal shooting of 44-year-old Marshall Tobin by Officers Joseph McCarthy and Robert Kerr on July 4, 2012; the fatal shooting of 42-year-old William Heinze by Officers Dustin Joseph, Ritzie Tolentino and Josh Coleman on March 20, 2013; the fatal shooting of 57-year-old Mohammad Naas by Officer Steve Darden on June 8, 2013; and the injury shooting of Tony Ridgeway by Officer Josh Coleman on Aug, 24, 2013.
Coleman recently testified in Solano County Superior Court that after the Heinze shooting, then-Sgt. Kent Tribble bent the tip of his badge to mark the shooting in a bar across the street from police headquarters while Joseph was present. Coleman testified that no one would be allowed to watch the badge bending ritual unless they had also participated.
Coleman has since left the department to join the Napa County Sheriff’s Office and Joseph is a police officer in Fairfield, where he has been the target of protests following the revelations that officers participated in the badge-bending tradition.
The city has also refused to release an outside investigator’s report on the badge bending ritual, leading the American Civil Liberties Union to sue the department to compel its release last week.
The destroyed records had previously been secret under state law, but became public records after the state legislature passed SB 1421 in 2018, which made investigations into police shootings public records. The city received numerous public records requests for any such records once the law took effect on Jan. 1, 2019, but it has struggled to comply and has been releasing records at a snail’s pace for nearly four years.
Knight said that the city would not destroy any further records until its public records requests are completed and that the city had taken steps to ensure that no further records are destroyed.
But Knight declined to say what steps were taken. “While we are unable to share privileged communications from our office to City Departments, the City has in place an administrative process for records management,” she wrote.