PASSIONS FLARED at a community meeting in Vallejo held by the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California as the organization asked residents how they can better represent them against a police department plagued with scandal and violence.  

“We’re going to make a sustained push in Vallejo,” said ACLU attorney Avi Frey to the crowd on Aug. 24. “We’re going to make resources in an ongoing way to make an impact and to be around.” 

The ACLU filed suit last fall against the city of Vallejo to compel it to release what they say are public records regarding the Police Department’s practice of “badge bending.”  

Officers in Vallejo bent the tips of their badges to mark the killing of citizens in what some call a macabre ritual but the attorney for the police union Michael Rains said was meant as a way to signify officers “surviving officer-involved shootings.” 

An independent investigator was called in to look into the badge-bending practice and released a report in 2021 that has yet to be released to the public. City officials say the report is a personnel matter and therefore private, something the ACLU is challenging.  

“Instead of having the chance to mourn, you have to immediately go into a fight to try and get justice.”

Kris Kelly, ACLU – Solano County chapter

“The ACLU lawsuit argues that the report is not a personnel record,” says the organization on its website. “And if it were, it would still have to be made available to the public because it involves the use of deadly force by police officers.”

Vallejo police have received international attention for their long history of killing suspects, and members of impacted families were at Aug. 24 meeting.

Kris Kelly, co-chair of the Solano County chapter of the ACLU, is the sister of Mario Romero, who was shot 31 times by Vallejo police in 2012 as he sat in his car. Police allege he had a gun, which they say turned out to be a pellet gun.

Kris Kelly, co-chair of ACLU Solano and sister of Mario Romero, who was killed by Vallejo police in 2012, speaks at a community meeting Aug. 24, 2023 in Vallejo. (Katy St. Clair/Bay City News)

Kelly said she urged the ACLU to get involved in Vallejo after receiving no support around her brother’s death and in fact being “treated like a criminal.” 

“Instead of having the chance to mourn, you have to immediately go into a fight to try and get justice,” she said. “It’s a place I never imagined I would ever be standing.” 

Marshal Arnwine, an advocate in the ACLU criminal justice program, gave a presentation to the gathering about California’s Senate Bill 2, which passed in 2021. 

The bill created a statewide system to decertify police officers who have been found to commit serious infractions, such as witness tampering, sexual assault, lying or other misdeeds that could have gotten them suspended or fired in one city but did not bar them from getting hired in another. Once they are decertified, their career in law enforcement ends.

“The question that I have is, you have a police department that’s badge bending. You want to trust them to open up an investigation?”

David Harrison, Willie McCoy’s cousin

SB 2 means that officer conduct can be brought before the Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST) for review and potential decertification. However, POST relies on police departments giving them the information in the first place and the commission is made up of other members of law enforcement. Reviews do also pass through a civilian body, but members of the crowd at Aug. 24 meeting questioned whether “cops policing cops” was progress.  

A frame grab from body cam video shows a Vallejo Police officer with his gun trained on Willie McCoy at a drive-through on Feb. 9, 2019, moments before McCoy was fatally shot by police. (Image from Vallejo Police Department video courtesy of Video Leak Police/YouTube)

One person who questioned this was David Harrison, cousin of Willie McCoy, who was gunned down in his car by Vallejo police officers in 2019 after he fell asleep in a Taco Bell drive-thru. 

David Harrison, cousin of Willie McCoy, who was killed by Vallejo police in 2019, spoke at a community meeting held by the ACLU NorCal Aug. 24, 2023. (Katy St. Clair/Bay City News)

“The question that I have is, you have a police department that’s badge bending. You want to trust them to open up an investigation?” said Harrison. 

Things at the meeting got heated when a member of the audience asked if it was prudent to talk about disciplining bad officers when the Vallejo Police Department is already understaffed and 911 calls aren’t responded to. The City Council made a declaration of emergency in July due to the understaffing.  

Family members of people killed by police responded forcefully. 

“We deserve a police department who will protect its citizens and not murder them!” said Kelly. “This is not a show! You’re in the wrong place!”

Rooted in racism

Former Vallejo Police Chief Shawny Williams. (Photo courtesy the Vallejo Police Department)

Attorney Melissa Nold, who represents the families of people who have been killed by Vallejo officers, said that the understaffing on the force there is indeed a real situation, but that when former Chief Shawny Williams tried to bring in new recruits, he got everything from pushback from current officers to a serious death threat.  

“Part of the recruitment problem right this very day is because when Chief Williams was bringing in diverse, qualified applicants, they were harassing them, they were threatening, they were forced out, they forced Williams out,” she said. 

Nold said Williams, who is Black, received a racist death threat before he abruptly resigned in November 2022. 

ACLU attorney Frey tried to offer some good news to the audience, though he admitted it was still not ideal. Frey said the California Department of Justice, which began an informal oversight of the Vallejo Police Department in 2020, has now moved onto working toward a consent decree. The settlement would create a list of things the department is required to do, not just recommendations. If the department doesn’t follow the decree, they can be held in contempt.  

Kelly said it will take more than the ACLU and the DOJ to fix the problems in Vallejo, but it’s a good start. 

“If we can look within ourselves and start with one thought, what can they help us with? Because if it’s impossible and there’s nothing we can do, why are we here?” she asked. 

Katy St. Clair got her start in journalism by working in the classifieds department at the East Bay Express during the height of alt weeklies, then sweet talked her way into becoming staff writer, submissions editor, and music editor. She has been a columnist in the East Bay Express, SF Weekly, and the San Francisco Examiner. Starting in 2015, she begrudgingly scaled the inverted pyramid at dailies such as the Vallejo Times-Herald, The Vacaville Reporter, and the Daily Republic. She has her own independent news site and blog that covers the delightfully dysfunctional town of Vallejo, California, where she also collaborates with the investigative team at Open Vallejo. A passionate advocate for people with developmental disabilities, she serves on both the Board of the Arc of Solano and the Arc of California. She lives in Vallejo.