An investigative report by Open Vallejo details a disturbing tradition that took place for a generation within the Vallejo Police Department. “A secretive clique” of officers reportedly “commemorated fatal shootings with beers, backyard barbecues and by bending the points of their badges each time they kill[ed] in the line of duty.” It was a practice they referred to as “The Badge of Honor,” Open Vallejo reports. The practice was apparently so hidden that some officers involved in deadly shootings were never aware that it existed.
“The Badge of Honor” tradition was exposed, however, when a police captain “tried to end the practice following the fatal shooting of 20-year-old Willie McCoy in February 2019.” According to Open Vallejo, over the next six months, “the highest levels of Vallejo city government and the district attorney’s office” became aware of what was happening in the shadows at the police department.
From the report:
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.”
The independent news site’s research shows that out of roughly 100 officers on the force, close to 40 percent of them had been in at least one fatal shooting at the time of Whitney’s firing. Over a third were participants in two or more fatal shootings. Open Vallejo interviewed 20-plus current and former local government officials and tapped public employment data, crime scene photographs, internal investigations following shootings, public records and archival news reports for its investigation. From the findings:
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.
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 to lieutenant in February. Together these men account for nearly a third of the department’s 30 fatal shootings of the past two decades.
In early July, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra announced an “expansive review” of the department’s policies, practices and procedures,” Open Vallejo reports. Becerra launched another criminal probe on July 17 after it was revealed that officers had destroyed evidence surrounding the death of Sean Monterrosa.
Open Vallejo details the culture within the Vallejo Police Department:
Intervention by the attorney general comes amid a cascade of troubling revelations over the culture within the department, whose roughly 100 officers kill more people per capita than all but two other cities in California, a 2019 investigation 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.
Read the full report.