The City of Vallejo, California, Has a Police Problem—and It's All Being Caught on Camera
A small city in California has been plagued by police shootings, costly civil rights lawsuits, and incidents of excessive force.
The cellphone video starts at approximately the moment Vallejo Police Department officer David McLaughlin draws his gun from its holster.
Adrian Burrell, a former Marine and documentary filmmaker is holding the phone and standing on his porch on January 22, watching the traffic stop of his cousin, Michael Walton, happening in Burrell's driveway.
"You have a gun, and I have one, but it's in the form of a camera," Burrell recalls thinking. "This is the only thing I can bring to the fight."
When McLaughlin turns and notices he's being filmed, he orders Burrell to "get back."
"Nope," Burrell responds from his porch about 20 to 30 feet away.
Filming the police is protected under the First Amendment, as long as it doesn't interfere with police duties. But McLaughlin strides onto the porch—holstering his gun and turning his back on Walton, a man he just moments ago appeared to consider a possible deadly threat—and starts to handcuff Burrell. "You're interfering, so you're going in the back of the car," he says.
What happens next isn't caught on camera, but McLaughlin tells Burrell to stop resisting. "I'm not resisting," Burrell insists.
According to Burrell, McLaughlin then swept him to the ground and slammed his head against a wooden pole, giving him a concussion. McLaughlin detained Burrell before eventually releasing him, Burrell says, after finding out he was a veteran.
"I spend my whole life trying to avoid this, and it came to my house," Burrell thought as he sat in the back of the squad car.
Like many recorded instances of police misconduct over the past five years, Burrell's cellphone footage, uploaded to Facebook, went viral, sparking national media coverage. But it was only one of a string of high-profile police incidents in recent months that have inflamed long-running tensions in Vallejo—a diverse, blue-collar city north of Oakland, California—between the city's police department and its citizens. Almost all of the recent incidents have been caught on cellphones or police-worn body cameras. Local activists say they finally show what lawsuits and protesters have complained of for years.
Vallejo has paid out millions of dollars to settle civil lawsuits alleging wrongful deaths, brutality, and misconduct over the past decade. According to Claudia Quintana, Vallejo city attorney, there are currently 35 pending claims and lawsuits in connection with the Vallejo Police Department, 16 of which allege excessive force. There have been accusations of police retaliation against victims who have come forward, the police chief resigned in April, and the mayor has asked that the Justice Department come to town to try to mend the frayed relationship between police and the community.
The Vallejo Police Department says it is underfunded and dealing with high crime and high unemployment; the city never really recovered from the 2008 recession.
But Vallejo has one of the highest per capita rates of fatal police shootings in the state, higher than neighboring cities with similar crime problems, and one of the highest amounts of lawsuit payouts in the Bay Area. And while the number of police use-of-force injuries may be small compared to the overall number of arrests, for the first time, many of them are being caught on tape.
"Vallejo's been problematic for a long time," says Melissa Nold, Burrell's attorney. "I'm from here, I've lived here my whole life, and the police department's always been problematic. I think a lot of the increase for us recently has been the videotapes."
Showdown at a pizza parlor
The Burrell incident wasn't the first time mobile phone recordings revealed what looks like abusive behavior on the part of McLaughlin.
Roughly six months before, on August 11, 2018, McLaughlin was walking into a pizzeria while off-duty and out of uniform when he locked eyes with Vallejo resident Santiago Hutchins. Hutchins claimed McLaughlin asked him what he was looking at. The two started jawing at each other, but instead of shrugging it off, McLaughlin drew his gun and pointed it at Hutchins.
"We made eye contact," Hutchins told local news outlets. "He asked me what I was looking at, and I asked him what he wanted. We got into a verbal altercation. At that point, he pulled out his gun."
Witnesses, unaware McLaughlin was a cop, pulled out their cellphones, called 911, and started recording. Hutchins' family, sitting inside the pizzeria, watched as several Walnut Creek police officers arrived and tackled Hutchins.
Cellphone footage obtained by local news station KTVU shows McLaughlin then punching and elbowing Hutchins while two other officers hold him down. The beating bloodied Hutchins' face, and he required stitches above one of his eyes. Hutchins was arrested on suspicion of disturbing the peace, according to the East Bay Times, but the charges were later dropped.
Sanjay Schmidt, Hutchins' attorney, filed an internal affairs complaint with the Vallejo Police Department on Hutchins' behalf in October. The response? "Crickets chirping," he says.
Schmidt says no one from the department followed up to interview Hutchins, or even acknowledged it had received the complaint.
McLaughlin was put on leave on Feb. 4, three days after local news obtained the footage and reported he was the same officer from the Burrell incident. Hutchins filed an excessive force claim, a precursor to a civil rights lawsuit, against Vallejo several days later. In April, Vallejo rejected his claim, writing that McLaughlin was not on-duty as a city employee when the incident happened.
Without the cellphone video, the public wouldn't have had the opportunity to witness McLaughlin's actions for themselves, and he might never have been put on leave. "To me it was interesting that there were now two incidents in which Mclaughlin was caught—two incidents in which individuals had the presence of mind to get out their cellphones and record," Schmidt says.
Shot to death for blocking a Taco Bell drive-thru
On Feb. 9, five days after McLaughlin was put on leave, Vallejo police made national headlines again when several officers shot 20-year-old Bay Area rapper Willie McCoy to death after he fell asleep in a Taco Bell drive-thru in a running car with a gun in his lap. The Vallejo police were called after McCoy didn't respond to horn honks or people rapping on his window.
The Vallejo police arrived and found McCoy's doors locked. McCoy began to wake up, and police said he moved for the gun. The officers, fearing for their lives, opened fire and killed him.
The Vallejo Police Department first refused to release body cam footage of the shooting to news outlets or the public, citing the ongoing investigation. However, it did arrange for some of McCoy's family and a Vallejo City Council member to see the videos. When Nold and Open Vallejo, a local independent newsroom, found out, they demanded the tapes be released. Under California law, agencies can't selectively disclose public records.
The Vallejo Police Department soon released the footage, which shows six officers standing by McCoy's car for several minutes, formulating a plan while McCoy dozes inside. Although they shine lights on him, they make no attempt to wake McCoy. "If he reaches for it …" one officer says, nodding to the others.
McCoy then reaches up to scratch his shoulder and appears to slump forward. The officers start screaming at him, and seconds later open fire, hitting McCoy around 25 times, according to the law firm representing McCoy's family.
The officers claimed they feared for their safety when they opened fire. Yet the way they handled their approach amounted to a preemptive death sentence. As David French argued in National Review after the video was released, even if their fears were legitimate at that moment, the officers' decisions leading up the shooting nearly guaranteed McCoy had no chance of surviving the encounter.
It's a point the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) agrees on. "Willie McCoy's murder is a textbook example of police killing someone as a predictable result of their risky tactics, which created the very danger they then used to justify the use of lethal force," staffers for the civil rights group wrote in a blog post on the shooting.
However, Vallejo released a 51-page report this week by David Blake, an outside consultant on police use-of-force, that found the use of deadly force against McCoy was "reasonable and in line 18 with contemporary training and police practices." Blake was previously an "outside expert" on the fatal 2018 shooting of Stephon Clark by Sacramento police, which he also found reasonable.
The report also revealed that police shot McCoy 55 times in 3.5 seconds. McCoy's family is planning to sue.
"What we saw was a sleeping man," David Harrison, a cousin of McCoy, told NBC News after seeing the video. "He reaches with his right arm to his left shoulder, scratching. He wasn't awake. There wasn't enough time for him to wake up."
"What I see in that video is him beating my son and murdering him."
The Vallejo Police Department released body cam footage earlier this month of another fatal police shooting in the case of Ronell Foster.
On the night of February 13, 2018, Vallejo police officer Ryan McMahon tried to stop Foster for riding his bike in traffic without a light. Foster fled into an alley, where the two ended up in a struggle. McMahon tried to tase Foster, and then started hitting him with his flashlight. The police said Foster grabbed McMahon's flashlight and wielded it in a "threatening manner," at which point McMahon shot him.
Vallejo repeatedly refused to release McMahon's body camera footage, but finally did in response to a public records request by Open Vallejo. The video footage is blurry and dark, but Michael Haddad, one of the attorneys for Foster's family, says that, despite the department's attempts to parse the video frame by frame, it totally disproves the police narrative. The footage, Haddad says, shows that "at no time did Ronell take a fighting stance or make any sort of aggressive movement with that flashlight towards the officer."
"Although you can tell that Ronell appears to grab the flashlight, he immediately turns away from the officer, and he's trying to get away," he says. "As he's moving away, the officer shoots him about seven times. Every single shot goes into either his side, back, or the back of his head."
A wrongful death lawsuit against Vallejo for Foster's death is pending. McMahon was also one of the six officers who also shot Willie McCoy. The suit contends that McMahon "simply chased, cornered and shot Mr. Foster," who didn't present a serious threat, violating Foster's constitutional rights under the Fourth Amendment.
"The story they put out about my son was not true. … The public can now really see what happened," Paula McGowan, Foster's mother, told The Guardian. "What I see in that video is him beating my son and murdering him.…I want the public to know what these police officers are capable of."
"Why are you guys doing this?"
In addition to the shooting lawsuits, multiple excessive force lawsuits are either pending or forthcoming against the city of Vallejo, such as one excessive force suit filed by resident Carl Edwards in October of last year.
According to the suit, Edwards, 49, was working on a fence outside of his woodworking shop in July 2017 when several Vallejo Police officers approached him, looking for someone who had allegedly shot a slingshot or thrown rocks at some kids.
"Come over here, I want to talk to you," Vallejo police officer Spencer Muniz-Bottomley said, according to the suit.
"We can talk right here," Edwards allegedly responded.
Footage from Muniz-Bottomley's body cam, uploaded to YouTube, doesn't capture their initial exchange. The audio starts right after, when the officer orders Edwards to "put your hands on your head, bro."
"What the fuck?" Edwards says, but the words are barely out of his mouth before he is swarmed by several Vallejo police officers, who wrestle him to the ground.
"Why are you guys doing this?" Edwards yells. By the time police pry his arms behind his back and handcuff Edwards, his face, and the concrete underneath it, is spattered in blood.
Edwards' lawsuit claims he suffered a broken nose, a black eye, head trauma, a sprained shoulder, and cuts to his face, arms, back, hands, and head, the latter of which required stitches.
Haddad, who also represents Edwards, says the police tried to convince witnesses to press charges against Edwards and, when they failed, filed false reports against him, resulting in 14 months of prosecution for aggravated assault against a child and resisting arrest. The charges were eventually dismissed.
Two days after the Vallejo Times-Herald published a story on Edwards' lawsuit, as well as the YouTube footage, the Vallejo police announced that Muniz-Bottomley, who was named in two prior excessive force lawsuits, was no longer employed by the department. He has since moved to the Solano County Sheriff's Office, Haddad says.
"As long as the command staff, the police department, and the city attorney's office is actively working to enable their misconduct and lawlessness, it's going to continue," Haddad says.
One of the other officers named in Edwards lawsuit, Sgt. Steve Darden, hit a man in the face in 2013 who complained that police took too long to respond to his call. Darden's body cam footage was leaked to a local ABC affiliate by someone inside the Vallejo Police Department.
In Darden's police report of the incident, also leaked to the news outlet, he wrote that he "conducted a 'front reap throw,' exerted forward force with my right palm into the upper portion of his chest while sweeping his legs in the opposite direction." The video shows him smacking the man upside his head.
The anonymous leaker also wrote to the news channel about the Vallejo Police Department: "Criminal behavior is being allowed and nothing is being done to stop it."
Vallejo has settled a lot of lawsuits
In total, Vallejo paid out more than $7 million in civil rights lawsuit settlements involving its police department since 2011, local news outlet KTVU reported.
That's a minuscule number compared to cities like Chicago or New York. In fiscal year 2018 alone, New York City paid $230 million to settle 3,745 lawsuits against their police department, according to the New York City Comptroller's office. But New York City has more than 35,0000 police officers, whereas Vallejo only has around 100.
Vallejo paid out more per officer in civil rights lawsuits than nine other Bay Area law enforcement agencies between 2015 and 2017, according to an analysis by the local East Bay Express.
However, according to the city of Vallejo, lawsuits against it are actually trending down. Quintana declined to comment on any of the specific lawsuits, but told Reason that Vallejo's lawsuits in all areas of general liability, including excessive force, have dropped from a high of 45 total lawsuits in 2014 to 25 in 2019.
"Our understanding is that no reputable study exists comparing Vallejo's costs of lawsuits and settlements for excessive force, or in general, as compared to other cities in the Bay Area. One news story compares Vallejo to Richmond, which, while interesting does not constitute a statistically valid sample," Quintana says. "While everyone in the city of Vallejo believes that there is room for improvement on many fronts, I believe recent media stories may be reflective of a certain investigatory bias seeking to influence judicial and settlement outcomes for pending claimants or lawsuits."
Vallejo native Geoffrey King, a constitutional lawyer and open government advocate who's been collecting public records on the issue, said Quintana's allegation of media bias is "both shocking and unsurprising."
"The sad reality is that [Quintana's statement] is, I think, an accurate reflection of the tone from city officials toward any sort of even mild criticism," King says. "It's consistent with what I find to be the contempt for democratic norms in Vallejo and the opacity that, by every indication, people are completely fed up with."
Some of Vallejo's lawsuits settlements are for hundreds of thousands, sometimes millions, of dollars, but there's also been a slew of smaller payouts:
- In 2016, Vallejo settled an excessive force lawsuit filed on behalf of a woman with stage IV lung cancer for $50,000. According to the suit, the woman was having a partial seizure, and in her confusion started resisting paramedics' attempts to put her in an ambulance. A Vallejo police officer yanked her arm behind her back, past its normal range of motion, and swept her to the ground. The lawsuit claims her orthopedist later recommended arthroscopic surgery to repair her damaged shoulder.
- In 2016, Vallejo paid out $35,000 to settle another excessive force lawsuit by Guillermo Solis, who alleged that he spent a week in a hospital recovering from "a serious brain injury" after a Vallejo cop slammed his head into the ground while he was handcuffed during a wrong-door raid.
- Vallejo paid out another $17,500 that year to settle a racial profiling lawsuit against officers Matthew Komoda and Ryan McLaughlin (David McLaughlin's twin brother, who followed him from the Oakland Police Department to Vallejo in 2014). Vallejo resident Nickolas Pitts claimed he was taking his trash to the curb when Komoda and McLaughlin pulled up and jumped out of their cruiser with their guns drawn. They "proceeded to grab and punch him in the head while pinning his face against the ground," the lawsuit alleged. "The assault left him with several of his dreadlocks being ripped out of his head." Pitts was charged with resisting arrest and jaywalking, but the charges were later dropped.
Last year, Vallejo separated from the California Joint Powers Risk Management Authority (CJPRMA), an insurance pool for municipalities. The CJPRMA board of directors noted that Vallejo's losses were "large and disproportionate compared to the other members." According to the city's 2018 end-of-year financial report, it's estimating $2 million in increased insurance costs over the next five years.
A string of fatal shootings and a lack of video
Willie McCoy's death was the 16th fatal police shooting by Vallejo police since 2011. A recent data analysis by NBC Bay Area found that "the 16 shooting deaths by Vallejo police officers during the last seven and a half years adds up to one of the highest per capita death rates at the hands of police in the state." Only two police departments in California, San Bernardino and South Gate, had higher per capita rates of fatal police shootings between 2005 and 2017.
"We consider this information stale and not indicative of Vallejo's downward trend in the past five years regarding officer involved shooting deaths," Quintana says.
However, data on police use-of-force in California published last week by Campaign Zero, a police reform campaign tied to the Black Lives Matter movement, showed that Vallejo police used more force per arrest than 98 percent of other California cities in 2016 and 2017.
In 2008, Vallejo declared bankruptcy, and the number of sworn police officers steadily dwindled, putting more workload on fewer cops. Vallejo's police force went from a high of 158 sworn police officers in 2005 to 77 officers at its low point in 2013, roughly the same time that fatal police shootings peaked.
"Because we're among the lowest paid, we can't compete with the neighboring agencies who are attracting experienced officers" Darden recently told NBC News on a ride along. "The low pay means that our applicant pool consists of inexperienced people."
Another defining event was the death of Vallejo police officer Jim Capoot. Capoot, a decorated, 19-year veteran, was shot and killed by a bank robbery suspect in 2011. It was the first killing of an on-duty Vallejo police officer in more than a decade, and it rattled the town and its small police department.
The Vallejo Police Department and the Vallejo Police Officers' Association, a union representing Vallejo police, did not respond to requests for comment for this story.
Whatever the case, an unusual amount of police shootings soon followed.
One Vallejo police officer, Sean Kenney, fatally shot three people over a five-month period in 2012. It would be a remarkable number for an entire police department in a city the size of Vallejo. For one officer, it's practically unheard of.
In May 2012, Kenney fatally shot Anton Barrett after Barrett and his son ditched their car and fled from police. Kenney chased Barrett into an alley. According to the police account, Barrett ran toward Kenney, ignoring his commands and holding a dark metallic object that looked like a gun. It turned out to be his wallet.
Five months later, in the early morning hours of September 2, Kenney and another officer, Dustin Joseph, shot Mario Romero, 22, and Joseph Johnson, 21, who were sitting in Romero's Ford Thunderbird smoking cigarettes. Kenney and Joseph pulled up on the young men and ordered them to show their hands. Instead, they said Romero immediately got out of the car and reached for a gun in his waistband. Romero was shot 30 times. Police recovered a pellet gun from the car.
A month later, Kenney shot Jeremiah Moore, an autistic man who police said pointed a rifle at officers.
A 2015 BuzzFeed investigation found several eyewitness accounts that contradicted official police reports. One eyewitness said Moore was never holding a rifle. Another eyewitness of the Romero and Johnson shooting said Romero never got out of the car.
The Solano District Attorney dragged out its investigations of the three shootings for several years but eventually ruled all three were justified. Local newspapers covered the cases, and families and activists held protests, but the momentum behind the protests fizzled.
One crucial difference between that string of shootings and the incidents in Vallejo this year is that there was no video footage to corroborate or disprove the police narrative, no way for the public to independently assess the evidence, and no way to see if the Vallejo Police Department was policing itself.
At the time, the internal police investigations into those shootings were sealed under California's extensive police secrecy laws, but this year, a new law went into effect making some internal police files subject to the state's Public Records Act. Reason has pending public records requests with the Vallejo Police Department for shooting investigations and misconduct record involving several officers, including McLaughlin and Kenney.
However, the civil suits stemming from those shootings resulted in some of the largest settlements against Vallejo. A civil rights lawsuit in the Romero and Johnson shooting was settled for $2 million. The Barrett family settled their lawsuit, which also claimed Barrett's son was mauled by a police K-9 while handcuffed, for $235,000.
Kenney was promoted to detective in 2014 and retired from the department in 2018. He now runs a law enforcement consulting firm, where he says the goal is to "share his own police experiences to help improve the communication between the police department and community."
Claims of retaliation
There have also been allegations of retaliation against those who have come forward alleging police misconduct.
The afternoon that Burrell uploaded his cellphone footage of McLaughlin to Facebook, he says he was standing in his yard with Nold when two large officers from the Vallejo Police Department's internal affairs unit pulled up in a cruiser with its lights flashing. It was unnerving to Burrell, who hadn't given police his address, and he wonders how it would have gone if his lawyer wasn't there.
About a month after Willie McCoy was killed, one of McCoy's nieces, 20-year-old Deyana Jenkins, was driving at night with some friends when she was pulled over by Vallejo police officers. Police accused the women of pointing their fingers out the window like guns at the officers, a claim they deny. Jenkins, 5'2″ and 110 pounds, was tased for allegedly resisting arrest for driving without a license, which she says she forgot. Once again, the incident was caught on cellphone. Jenkins can be heard screaming, "I did not resist!"
In March, 18-year-old Carlos Yescas was pulled over by a plain-clothes Vallejo officer while driving a used Mercedes a couple of blocks down the street to a neighborhood market. Yescas had recently purchased the Mercedes and hadn't registered it yet, and what started as a minor traffic infraction ended with a violent arrest, captured on cellphone by Yescas' 12-year-old brother, as well as the impound of Yescas' new car. Yescas' mother told the San Francisco Chronicle that the day after she posted the video to Facebook, a Vallejo police officer was parked outside of her house and followed her husband as he drove to drop off two of her children at school.
The Vallejo Police Department would not answer Yescas' calls or emails about his impounded car, and the towing company denied having it. He eventually found out his "lost" car was put up for sale by the department.
The family of Angel Ramos, another young man fatally shot by a Vallejo police officer in 2017, told the Chronicle that after they started holding protests and candlelight vigils, police began to drive by and shine spotlights in their windows.
"I used to always tell clients that retaliation by the police wasn't a concern to have," says Nold, who is also representing Jenkins and Yescas. "I can't do that for people in Vallejo now."
"I should be the person who doesn't shut up."
The string of 2012 shootings was covered by local news, but the small protests lacked momentum, and there was no video evidence to challenge police narratives. This time, it's different.
Amid the continuing national media coverage and intensifying community criticism, Vallejo police chief Andrew Bidou announced his retirement in April. The city originally planned for Bidou to serve as interim chief while it searched for his replacement. However, Vallejo officials scrapped the plan after local news outlets reported that Bidou would be double-dipping on his pay, receiving both a regular salary and $19,000 a month in state retirement benefits.
Vallejo public officials have since asked for the Justice Department's Community Relations Service to come to town to try and improve relations between the police and residents.
By all accounts, Vallejo needs it. Local activists are calling for the California Attorney General's office to investigate the city, and the mayor shut down one of the most recent Vallejo City Council meetings amid shouting between family members of shooting victims, other audience members, and city council members. Police escorted the audience out of City Hall and then surrounded the building.
As for Adrian Burrell, he's moving out of Vallejo. He says he was recently accepted into Stanford to pursue a graduate degree, and he no longer feels comfortable in his house after it was splashed all over the news. He started receiving trollish, threatening messages on social media.
He has not, however, stopped talking about what happened.
"My mom told me, 'You have a responsibility to talk every chance you can,'" Burrell says. "I thought about what she said, and I was like, you know what, you're right. There's so many people who went through this, and they can't talk about it, because they're dead. I went through it, and for whatever reason, I'm not, so I should be the person who doesn't shut up."
On May 1, Officer David McLaughlin was taken off administrative leave and returned to desk duty at the Vallejo Police Department, where he will continue to collect a public salary.