Police Abuse

California Attorney General Announces Settlement To Stop Civil Rights Abuses by Vallejo Police Department

A 2019 Reason investigation detailed a long string of police abuses in Vallejo. Things have only gotten worse since then.


For over a decade, local activists, reporters, and attorneys have been sounding the alarm about habitual civil rights violations by police in the Bay Area town of Vallejo, California. Now, California Attorney General Rob Bonta has announced that the state has reached a binding settlement with Vallejo to attempt to reform its troubled police department.

Bonta said in a press conference today that the California Department of Justice has entered into a stipulated judgment with the city of Vallejo and the Vallejo Police Department (VPD) to implement over 45 specific reforms meant to improve oversight, policies, and training in the VPD.

"The people of Vallejo deserve a police department that listens to them and guarantees their civil rights are protected," Bonta said. "We'll accept nothing less."

Reason reported in 2019 how the relatively small Vallejo Police Department had generated an outsized number of lawsuits for wrongful deaths, brutality, and misconduct over the past decade, resulting in millions of dollars in settlements. There had been semi-frequent local protests for years, but only recently had cellphone videos and body camera footage started capturing the reality of policing in Vallejo for the world to see.

The agreement stipulates a five-year plan to overhaul the VPD, building on 45 recommended reforms that the city agreed to undertake in 2020. Among the reforms are measures to hold officers accountable for not reporting or investigating excessive force, define and limit pretextual stops, and conduct an audit anytime an officer points or brandishes a firearm.

Bonta said that Vallejo is currently in compliance with 20 of those recommendations. Compliance with the settlement will be overseen by both a judge and an independent evaluator.

Melissa Nold, a Vallejo civil rights attorney, says Bonta's announcement is welcome, although just a starting point.

"Oversight of VPD has been promised to Vallejo's impacted families for over a decade," Nold says. "We hope this increased oversight will save lives so there will be no more Willie McCoy, Ronell Foster, or Angel Ramos."

Since Reason's story was published in 2019, the large settlements have continued apace, and things have only gotten more chaotic within the department. In 2020, the city agreed to a $5.7 million settlement with the family of Ronell Foster, who was fatally shot by a Vallejo officer in 2018.

That same year, a police whistleblower, John Whitney, told the outlet Open Vallejo that there was a tradition among some Vallejo officers of bending the tips of their badges to mark fatal shootings. Whitney also filed a lawsuit alleging he was fired from the Vallejo Police Department in retaliation for reporting misconduct, including badge bending. The then-police chief admitted the tradition was real, and several officers testified in court about it. The city settled with Whitney this September for close to $1 million.

Last year, Vallejo paid out $300,000 to a Marine veteran who was tackled on his own porch for filming a police officer. In 2021, the city paid $270,000 to settle another excessive force lawsuit against the same officer, who, while off-duty, held a man at gunpoint outside of a pizzeria for mouthing off to him and then savagely beat him while two other officers held the man down.

The head of the Vallejo police union was fired from the department for sending a threatening email to a reporter but later won his job back, with backpay, through arbitration. Earlier this year, a court ruled that Vallejo illegally destroyed public records regarding several fatal police shootings. Open Vallejo also reported that the department attempted to conceal records on four in-custody deaths that all involved Tasers, claiming the deaths were accidental and unrelated to being tased. In one of those cases, a man was tased for nearly three minutes. He was dead by the time paramedics arrived. (The Appeal previously reported that one VPD lieutenant with a long history of excessive force allegations was so trigger-happy that he was known as "Captain Taser" among local prosecutors.)

There is also an ongoing lawsuit against the city by the family of Willie McCoy, who was shot 55 times by Vallejo police officers after falling asleep in a Taco Bell drive-thru with a gun in his lap.

The viral videos have not stopped either. On Friday cellphone footage of a Vallejo officer punching a struggling woman, who was suspected of shoplifting $2,000 of merchandise, in the head.

"For decades the Vallejo Police Department has trampled on its citizens' constitutional rights with near impunity, its only accountability coming from civil rights cases," says Ben Nisenbaum, a partner at the law firm of Burris, Nisenbaum, Curry & Lacy. "Vallejo officers who have beaten and slaughtered people have been allowed to continue being Vallejo police officers. Officers who have lied in their police reports and been proven to have done so have gone unpunished. Now, with a consent decree between the city and the attorney general, it looks like that horrific era may be history. We certainly hope so, but it all depends on how thorough the consent decree is, and how committed the city and the attorney general is to the long road ahead in fully rebuilding this department."