by Jayson Hawkins
Outrage at police killings of unarmed Black men ebbs and flows with the rhythm of short news cycles and shorter attention spans, but each new tragedy that ignites protests and calls for reform seems to push the needle toward more accountability and better policing. At least that’s what it looks like from the living rooms of most Americans. The reality is simultaneously more complex and distressing as young Black men continue to die at the hands of cops who routinely escape consequences for their actions.
It may be true that in some places, social justice advocates are gaining ground, but it is certainly true that in other places, police accountability and transparency are essentially nonexistent. Take Vallejo, California, a city of 125,000 on the San Francisco Bay where police have killed 33 people since 2000, one of the highest rates of deadly force in the country. In this city, it is not only routine for officers to elude any serious consequences for their actions, it is actually fairly common for Vallejo cops to kill again before inquiries into earlier killings are even complete.
Investigations by Open Vallejo, a local social justice group and newsroom, and ProPublica’s Local Reporting Network have revealed a series of dysfunctions at the Vallejo Police Department (“VPD”), including mishandled evidence, failure to interview witnesses at the scene, months-long administrative delays in internal use-of-force inquiries, and serial policy breaches by officers using deadly force.
The conduct of VPD Officer Ryan McMahon amply illustrates many of these pains. In 2018, McMahon pursued Ronell Foster, a 33-year-old Black man on a bicycle, for illegally changing lanes. When Foster refused to stop, McMahon chased him until he fell from his bike, after which the officer pursued on foot. McMahon was required by department policy to radio in when he left his vehicle, but he did not. Policy also required McMahon to warn a suspect before using force, if possible, but he tased Foster in the back without warning. McMahon then jumped on Foster’s back, tased him again, and beat him with a 13-inch metal flashlight. When Foster tried to grab the light, McMahon shot seven times, including four times in the back and once in the head, killing Foster instantly.
It took VPD officials a year-and-a-half to complete a review of Foster’s death. It found that McMahon had violated several policies, including not turning on his body camera. “Officer McMahon failed to recognize his safety and the safety of the suspect Ronnell Foster outweighed apprehension for a minor traffic/pedestrian violation,” the police chief at the time wrote. He ordered McMahon to attend a training session. Unfortunately, by the time that training was ordered, McMahon had already been involved in the killing of another Black man.
The VPD investigation of this second killing found that McMahon had committed many of the same violations, including not opting for non-lethal force. He was fired after the second shooting but not because of how he treated the victim. McMahon was terminated because he had endangered the life of another officer by shooting from behind him.
Inquiries by ProPublica and Open Vallejo found that the long and fatal leash given to McMahon was not an anomaly. Between 2011 and 2020, six of VPD’s 17 fatal shootings involved an officer still under investigation for a prior killing. In half of these cases, VPD investigators would eventually conclude that these officers committed significant errors in both killings.
The media investigation also revealed that the VPD routinely failed to follow the most basic guidelines in investigating the shootings. Evidence was mishandled or not sent to labs for processing, witnesses were not interviewed for weeks, and the entire process took far too long to be genuinely effective, according to experts at the U.S. Department of Justice (“DOJ”), who recommend six months, as opposed to an average of well over a year in Vallejo.
“This isn’t accepted practice. This isn’t even basement standard practice,” said Louis Dekmar, a former civil rights police monitor for the DOJ. “Any agency that takes that long is saying that this isn’t a priority.”
Such delays can have serious consequences for the integrity of an investigation. While looking into the Chicago Police Department after the shooting of a Black teenager in 2017, the DOJ wrote, “Memories fade, evidence is lost, and investigators may not be able to locate those crucial witnesses needed to determine whether misconduct has occurred.”
In Vallejo, the delays made it almost impossible to discipline officers for misconduct. The California statute of limitations requires such discipline to be pursued within one year, but in Vallejo, the average time to complete an inquiry into a fatal shooting was 20 months. Even though the county requires detectives to complete initial reports and submit evidence from the crime scene within 30 days, Vallejo detectives routinely waited months before sending evidence or requesting analysis. This often led to cases being closed before forensic reports were done.
Vallejo police also regularly delayed interviewing eyewitnesses. In 2012, Jaime Alvarado saw police shoot his neighbor, who was mildly autistic. Alvarado approached officers that night but was told “we don’t have time to talk.” Police only interviewed him after the victim’s family sued VPD.
ProPublica found other investigations in which VPD either waited months to perform an interview or never interviewed witnesses at all, despite county policy that such interviews are to be done immediately. In each of these cases, the witnesses’ accounts directly contradicted the cops’ claim that the victim was armed.
Vallejo’s police chief since 2019, Shawny Williams, declined ProPublica’s request for an interview, but he did provide a written statement pointing out recent administrative changes, including a timeline for completing investigations. The statement does not spell out how non-compliance with the policy would affect the officer under inquiry, nor does it offer insight into any of ProPublica’s specific findings.
“All the above changes,” Chief Williams wrote, “are designed to create enhanced internal accountability and will provide a more transparent process for our department and the community.”
To date, the VPD has not addressed the fact that some officers are involved in fatal shootings while still under investigation for earlier killings. Officer Sean Kenney was under investigation for the fatal shooting of Anton Barrett Sr. in 2012 when, four months later, he and his partner shot Mario Romero 30 times. Romero was not armed (neither was Barrett). Two weeks after this second shooting, Kenney was back on patrol. He was eventually cleared in the internal VPD investigation into both incidents.
Before those investigations were concluded, however, Officer Kenney had killed again, and within six months, his partner had killed another man. Both officers received commendations for their valor while still under investigation. That investigation, conducted by the Critical Incident Review Board, a body made up of VPD veterans, cited problems in each of these shootings but recommended training instead of discipline. In fact, ProPublica could not identify a single incident where the Board recommended an officer be disciplined for improperly using force.
Several courts in civil proceedings have found cause to disagree with the Board’s assessments. Since 2012, the families of eight people killed by Vallejo police have filed lawsuits. Three of these are still in litigation, but the VPD has paid out $8.3 million in settlements so far. The largest of these, for $5.7 million, went to the family of Ronell Foster. As for criminal liability, that decision rests with the Solano County District Attorney, and considering that this office gets its evidence from Vallejo detectives, it is not surprising that victims’ families seeking justice have not found a sympathetic ear.
The problems in Vallejo offer a clear illustration of the root of the public’s frustration with police. “Either there is a remarkable amount of incompetence or it’s malicious. Neither should be acceptable,” said Seth Stoughton, a professor and former police officer who testified at the trial of Derek Chauvin. Despite these criticisms, police in Vallejo have shown no indication that they intend to change.
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