Police chief in California launches inquiry into alleged badge bending rite to indicate fatal shootings

The explosive allegations were first reported by Open Vallejo, which spoke to John Whitney, a former Vallejo police captain. Whitney, according to the report, said that he was fired from his position after calling attention to unethical conduct, such as the badge bending.

Whitney, the report added, said he learned of the trick practice this past year and reported it up the chain of command. The news site reported that at the very least 14 of the 51 current and former Vallejo officers involved in shootings since 2000 had their badges bent by a colleague shortly after a fatal shooting, citing sources familiar with the practice.

At least one officer named in the Open Vallejo report denied taking part in such a practice. “My badge has never been bent,” that he told the paper. “That’s a lie.”

In a statement released Wednesday, Vallejo Police Chief Shawny Williams said the newest information had prompted the inquiry and that it could help him “to understand the culture of the department in a greater way and to take corrective action.”

“If there is credible evidence found, I will expand the inquiry into an official investigation,” Williams said in the statement.

Shortly after Open Vallejo published its story, Lt. Michael Nichelini, the Vallejo police union president, called the story “beyond inflammatory” statement obtained by the Mercury News. He said that he wasn’t aware of the alleged badge-bending practice. “Frankly, it’s a ridiculous notion,” he said.

Whitney, a 19-year veteran of the department, learned of the secret ritual in February 2019 following a shooting of a local rapper in the drive-thru of a fast food restaurant, according to his lawyer, Alison Berry Wilkinson.

“To take pride in that (shootings) is absolutely condemnable in my view,” Wilkinson told CNN. “It’s highly unethical and it doesn’t fit the code of ethics for policing. And certainly, it was something he felt he needed to be ended.”

Citing confidentiality, Wilkinson said she couldn’t release more details. But she said Whitney raised his anxiety about then-Police Chief Andrew Bidou, who instructed him to address the problem at a command staff meeting.

“During that meeting, Captain Whitney wanted all supervisors to inspect their subordinates’ uniforms and collect badges,” Wilkinson said.

She confirmed other details of the Open Vallejo story, including that 10 suspicious badges were sooner or later put in a cardboard box and brought to the chief’s office.

“When the chief saw how many there were that needed to be repaired, he was concerned it would raise suspicion with the city finance department, and so he then ordered the badges be returned to the officers with an instruction that the officers fix them,” Wilkinson said her client told her.

Bidou have not responded to CNN requests for comment.

In August 2019, Whitney was fired from his job after a study into allegations he improperly handled information, according to the Open Vallejo report. Wilkinson said the official reason had to do with Whitney removing personal information from his department-issued phone.

But according to a claim filed by Wilkinson against the city, it was retaliation against Whitney “for expressing his professional opinions on a variety of misconduct issues.”

While the claim, which seeks right back pay and attorney fees, doesn’t specifically mention badge bending, Wilkinson says it’ll be detailed in a wrongful termination lawsuit Whitney plans to file.

Whitney appears to have ally in Vallejo Mayor Bob Sampayan. In a recommendation letter attached to the claim, Sampayan writes: “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.”

Sampayan was not readily available for comment Thursday, but the city provided a statement saying Assistant City Manager Anne Cardwell had spoken with City Manager Greg Nyhoff, who informed her, “The Mayor had advised me last year about these disturbing allegations of this practice that may have occurred in prior years at the Police Department. I immediately consulted with former Police Chief Bidou about these claims, and Chief Bidou indicated to me that this claim of ‘badge bending’ had been previously investigated and the claim had not been substantiated. The City takes all claims or credible information regarding potential misconduct seriously. Chief Williams is currently following up on the past allegations taking all investigatory measures, and he will take the appropriate and necessary actions based on the information provided.”

Attorney general demands department review

The Vallejo Police Department is no stranger to controversy.

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra announced last month that his office would review the department’s policies and methods amid a string of shootings by officers.

A 2019 investigation by NBC Bay Area found that per capita the Vallejo Police Department had the highest amount of people shot by police officers in Northern California, and the 3rd highest number in hawaii.

The Becerra review appears to have been prompted in part by the June 2 shooting death of 22-year-old Sean Monterrosa in Vallejo. Police shot the Latino man in a Walgreens parking lot after they arrived to investigate reports of looting following protests.

The officer who fired the fatal round mistook a hammer for a gun in Monterossa’s sweatshirt pocket, police said in a news release. What’s more, investigators looking into the case, unearthed that key evidence — the bullet-riddled windshield of law enforcement car the officer shot through — was destroyed.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has called on the FBI to investigate the killing.

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