In One California City, Police Kill With Near Impunity
Since 2010, no Vallejo officer has been disciplined for using deadly force, despite multiple shootings of unarmed people—including a man holding a can of beer. And active police union leaders have been involved in the shooting investigations.
Darwin BondGraham Dec 18, 2019
Over the past 10 years, police in Vallejo, California—a city of about 120,000 people northeast of San Francisco—shot 31 people, 17 of them fatally. A review of newly released police investigative files by The Appeal shows that officers there are rarely disciplined for using deadly force, even when the people they shoot are unarmed.
From 2010 through 2018, only three officers’ firearms tactics were criticized by supervisors. One of the officers was criticized for not using a method, taught by the department, that involves firing more shots at a murder suspect. Another shot at a suspect while police and passing motorists were in his line of fire. The third shot a rifle over the heads of other officers to kill an armed man. None of the officers were disciplined.
Although many of the people shot by Vallejo police were armed and dangerous, others were unarmed.
In one instance, a Vallejo officer shot a man who was holding a can of beer. The officer faced no discipline.
In another case, an officer killed an unarmed man who was running from the police. And a previously undisclosed fact about the case: the officer then took pictures of the man and his belongings and gave these photos to his police union attorney, who passed them on to detectives investigating whether the killing was legally justified. The photos were used to help clear the officer of wrongdoing.
Until recently, the Vallejo Police Department’s investigative records of officer-involved shootings, including whether any officers were disciplined for improperly using deadly force, have been kept confidential.
That’s changing under a transparency law that went into effect on Jan. 1, 2019. Since March, the department has released records for the officer-involved shootings that occurred from 2010 through 2018. Although the city has yet to release investigative files for the most recent officer-involved shootings that took place this year—including the non-fatal shooting of Edward Gonzalez by Officer Christopher Hendrix in January, or police reports regarding the fatal shooting of Willie McCoy in February—the newly disclosed records still provide insight into the city’s turbulent relationship with its police force.
The records, thousands of pages altogether, also provide a detailed look into a particularly violent period in the police department’s history—the two years immediately following the murder of a police officer.
On Nov. 17, 2011, Officer James Capoot was shot and killed by a bank robbery suspect. The two years before Capoot was killed, the Vallejo police were involved in only two fatal shootings, and three non-fatal shootings. The two years after Capoot’s murder, police increasingly used deadly force. Officers shot and killed nine people and injured six others in shootings. When interviewed by investigators, officers sometimes referred to Capoot’s murder, and their fear of also being killed, to justify using deadly force.
In San Francisco, a city with seven times the population of Vallejo, officers shot and killed three people over the same two-year period, and were involved in another 11 non-fatal shootings.
The newly released records also show that Vallejo police supervisors who reviewed fatal and non-fatal shootings for potential policy violations and training purposes praised officers for using a “zipper drill” method of firing. An officer using this method fires numerous rounds into an adversary, starting low in the target’s body and “zipping” the barrel of the gun up toward the person’s head while continuously shooting.
Prior to using this rapid-fire tactic, officers were taught to fire two to three rounds at a person’s center mass and then pause to re-evaluate the situation before shooting again, if necessary.
Roger Clark, a former Los Angeles County sheriff’s lieutenant who consults on police use of force, called the Zipper Drill method of firearms training a “cockamamie” idea.
“This makes no sense logically and tactically,” said Clark. “It will only result in unnecessary injury and death because you’re talking about pulling the trigger way too many times.”
One of the unarmed people shot and killed by Vallejo police during the year after Capoot’s murder was Anton Barrett Sr.
Shortly after midnight on May 28, 2012, four police officers were chasing a car driven by Barrett, who was suspected of drunk driving. Barrett drove just under one mile before he stopped on a dead end street behind two apartment buildings. He and his son, Anton Barrett Jr., who was sitting in the passenger seat, exited the vehicle and ran from the police. The younger Barrett climbed a wall and hid in a bush. His father ran into a breezeway separating the two apartment buildings and headed back toward the street he drove in on.
In the breezeway, Barrett came face-to-face with Officer Sean Kenney. Although the suspected offense at this point was driving under the influence and running from the police, Kenney already had his gun drawn. Kenney later told investigators that he saw Barrett slow his pace and drop his hands to the pocket of his sweater. Kenney said Barrett pulled his hand partially out of the pocket and exposed a “dark object.” Kenney opened fire, striking Barrett in the chest and arm; Barrett spun, and subsequent shots struck him in the back and buttocks before he fell onto his stomach.
Another officer who was pursuing Barrett from behind entered the breezeway. According to police records, Kenney warned that Barrett had a gun, so the second officer, Jeff Tai, electrocuted Barrett with his Taser. After cuffing Barrett, a third officer, Dustin Joseph, searched him. Barrett was unarmed and the officers found no weapons nearby.
Barrett died that night after being transported to a hospital.
Vallejo police reports don’t say exactly when, but sometime after officers failed to find a firearm, Kenney used his department-issued camera to take photos of Barrett and his belongings, including Barrett’s cellphone and wallet. Kenney later gave the camera to his personal attorney paid for by the Vallejo Police Officers’ Association. The attorney gave the camera to Mat Mustard, a department detective who was investigating the shooting. Mustard gave the camera to another investigator, Fabio Rodriguez.
Kenney declined to speak with The Appeal for this article.
On June 21, Rodriguez had a police evidence clerk help him take new photos of the wallet and cellphone that were found on Barrett. Rodriguez held the wallet and cellphone like a gun alongside a Glock pistol to replicate Kenney’s claim that Barrett withdrew one of the objects from his pocket, causing it to resemble a firearm.
“I noted that the wallet is similar in shape and size to the frame of the Glock, they are the same in color, and have a square and round appearance at times,” Rodriguez wrote in his report.
According to a separate report written by Mustard, when investigators interviewed Kenney, he “talked about his knowledge of how violence has increased towards the police in his past 10 years as being a police officer and says that he believes it is 10 times worse than it was when he began.”
Kenney shot and killed two more people, Jeremiah Moore and Mario Romero, in 2012 before he was promoted to the rank of detective. Police said both men were armed; witnesses disputed that Moore was holding a gun, and a pellet gun was removed from Romero’s car.
Kenney was also one of four officers involved in a 2017 non-fatal shooting. He retired in December 2018 to start a consulting firm.
While Mustard was responsible for determining whether Kenney’s actions were lawful when he shot Barrett, he was also president of the Vallejo Police Officers’ Association, which pays for officers’ legal representation and defends them against allegations of misconduct.
The department’s officer-involved shooting files show that Mustard has investigated numerous police shootings over the past decade while he was serving as the police union’s elected president.
Five other officers who have helped investigate police shootings for possible misconduct or legal violations—Scott Yates, Jason Martinez, Jared Jaksch, Terry Schillinger, and Kyle Wylie—currently serve on the police union’s elected board. Yates and Wylie participated in shooting investigations while serving on the board.
The police department’s relatively small size also means that some officers who are responsible for investigating potential criminal or policy violations have themselves used deadly force in previous incidents, alongside some of the same officers they are later assigned to investigate.
The investigative files for the 27 officer-involved shootings made public by the police department this year show that no officer has been disciplined in the past decade for using deadly force.
City Attorney Claudia Quintana, City Manager Greg Nyhoff, and Police Chief Shawny Williams did not respond to questions about the recently released files, or whether there are still undisclosed cases in which an officer was disciplined for using deadly force.
On Aug. 24, 2013, Josh Coleman and another Vallejo police officer heard a call about an armed robbery over the radio. They decided to drive to a nearby bar on the chance the suspects headed there. They spotted three men walking toward the bar who they thought matched the suspects’ descriptions.
When they tried to stop the three men, two complied, but the third, Antonio Ridgeway, continued walking and went into the back door of the bar. Coleman chased Ridgeway and shot him in the groin when he re-emerged after a few seconds. Coleman later told investigators that he saw Ridgeway reaching for his waistband and making a distinct “pulling motion” for a “chromed object” that was likely a gun.
The chrome object turned out to be a can of Steel Reserve 211 beer. Another customer in the bar later told police that Ridgeway had been in the bar with her for about 40 minutes before the shooting, at the same time the robbery took place elsewhere. He briefly left to buy beer at a nearby store just before walking back.
Coleman told investigators that he drew his gun, chased, and shot Ridgeway because he and the two other men were acting “weird” when they made eye contact and the police began following them.
One of Coleman’s supervisors, Sgt. Steve Darden, wrote in a critical incident report about the shooting that Coleman responded with “an appropriate reaction” to a “dangerous and rapidly evolving incident.” Coleman was not disciplined, according to city records.
Vallejo’s newly disclosed records also show that after officer-involved shootings since 2011, police supervisors sometimes commended officers for firing numerous rounds into suspects.
Sgt. Joe Iacono, who reviewed Kenney’s shooting of Barrett, determined that Kenney was entirely within department policy when he killed the unarmed man. Iacono wrote that Kenney “used a pattern of fire consistent” with how the department trains its officers to shoot. “He did not simply use two rounds and reevaluate as was taught in the past,” Iacono wrote. Instead, Kenney continuously fired into the unarmed man’s legs, arms, and body until he collapsed and stopped moving.
Sgt. Steve Darden’s shooting of an armed murder suspect a year later was debated by Vallejo police supervisors because Darden apparently didn’t use the zipper drill method. Instead, when confronted by the suspect—who had just shot and killed his wife in a parking lot behind a building, and who was pointing a gun at Darden—the officer fired two shots, re-evaluated the situation, and fired again.
Sgt. Kent Tribble wrote in a report about the incident that the department’s firearms instructors should “step away from the outdated ‘FBI’ failure drill (two to the body, one to the head),” and instead have “firearms instructors all teach the more industry standard ‘Zipper’ drill.”
The zipper drill is not a widely adopted firearms training technique, however.
“I have never heard of any other police department using it,” said Clark, the former LA sheriff’s lieutenant and use of force expert.
Vallejo police officials did not respond to questions about when the zipper drill was instituted in the department’s firearms training.
The most recent officer-involved shooting file disclosed by the city involves the killing of Ronnell Foster by Officer Ryan McMahon.
According to the records, McMahon spotted Foster riding a bicycle on Feb. 13, 2018, and decided to stop him and lecture him about traffic safety. Foster tried to ride away, but McMahon stopped him again four blocks away. Foster got off his bike, and McMahon told investigators that he was concerned about how he was standing on the sidewalk in a “bladed stance,” one foot in front of the other. Another officer, Joseph McCarthy—who has shot and killed three people while on duty—had shared an article with McMahon recently about how people in bladed stances might be preparing to attack.
In a statement that McMahon gave investigators after the shooting, he said Foster refused to be detained and rode away again on his bicycle, then fell from the bike and ran on foot. McMahon eventually caught up to Foster in an alleyway and fired his Taser at Foster. Police body camera video of the fight shows McMahon standing over Foster while he is on the ground and repeatedly Tasering him, and striking Foster with a large flashlight.
According to McMahon’s statement, Foster was able to get up and grab the flashlight out of McMahon’s hands, so McMahon shot and killed Foster. The Vallejo police issued a press release after the shooting stating that McMahon feared Foster was going to attack him with the flashlight, so he used deadly force.
But police records indicate that the flashlight, a key piece of evidence in the case, was mishandled at the crime scene. Jason Bahou, one of the officers to arrive just after the shooting, picked McMahon’s flashlight off the ground near Foster’s body and used it to illuminate the yard. He later put the light in his car.
After investigators recovered the flashlight from Bahou it was tested by a crime lab, but neither Foster’s prints nor his DNA were found on the light.
McMahon, one of six Vallejo officers who shot and killed Willie McCoy in February, may be facing discipline for shooting Foster.
Vallejo police records obtained by the Vallejo Times-Herald show that McMahon is on paid administrative leave pending investigation. The city declined to state what McMahon is being investigated for, but if it concerns a shooting, it would be the first time in years that any Vallejo officer was found to have wrongfully used deadly force.
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