Oakland – It has been four months since six Vallejo police officers shot Willie McCoy 25 times as he slept in his car. On Thursday, famed civil rights Attorney John Burris announced that they had filed a civil rights lawsuit in Eastern District Court in Sacramento against the City of Vallejo.
Mr. Burris appeared at a press conference in his office alongside numerous family members.
“We cannot bring back Willie McCoy,” John Burris said. “His killing was one of the most atrocious and outrageous cases I have seen.
“We’re alleging Willie’s life was wrongfully taken (in) violation of his civil rights,” he told the assembled press. “The manner in which he was killed raises real punitive damages questions.”
Mr. Burris noted that in all the police shot at him over 55 times “as he was asleep and trying to wake up.” He called the shooting “uncalled for” and “unjustifiable.” He told the media that the police had a lot of other options at the point in time when they used deadly force.
He said, “Six officers who shot into a car and frankly none of them were shot at.”
“They are going to have to account for it,” he said.
He explained that, while they are suing the six officers involved, “more importantly we view this case as a sample of a systematic form of policing, unconstitutional policing by the (Vallejo Police) department (which) over a period of time has allowed its officers to engage in conduct of excessive force, false arrests, lying, false statements, causing people to be prosecuted when basically they were subject to officer misconduct.
“Racial profiling,” he said. “Very minor events that turn into major events and in some cases have contributed to the death of a person.”
According to published accounts, on June 25, 2019, Vallejo City Manager Greg Nyhoff told the city council in a public meeting that he “just doesn’t feel that there is excessive use of force.”
Mr. Nyhoff went on to justify police violence by saying, “There are people who resist. There are people with mental illness who you just have to use force, sometimes for their own well-being.”
“This lawsuit itself includes additional claims,” Mr. Burris said, explaining that the lawsuit includes the city manager, as well as the police chief. “We are suing them because they are the official decisionmakers in the department. It is our view that they have engaged in a course of conduct of ratification, failure to discipline, failure to properly train and in fact by their non-action they have caused officers to think that it was proper and okay for them to engage in unconstitutional policing.”
He called the department “out of control,” arguing that particularly people of color “are all subject to the whims of any individual officer” where excessive force, disrespect and rude conduct prevails without fear of consequences.
Mr. Burris called this “a pattern and practice lawsuit” and said they are seeking injunctive relief, asking the court to enjoin the police department and impose a series of protocols “that go to policies and procedures and where they are essentially stopped from engaging in this unlawful policing that they have engaged in for a long period of time.”
Mr. Burris said that his office has dealt with incidents stemming from the Vallejo Police Department for years, but has “seen an intensification in recent years.”
As part of the lawsuit they have put forth a listing of 23 other cases – some are their cases that have been in litigation, while others are cases they have learned about through the course of their investigation that involves misconduct on the part of the officers.
“In none of those cases do we have any evidence at all that any officer has been disciplined, demoted in any way,” Mr. Burris. “It does not appear that this department is willing to corral these officers, to hold them accountable, to engage in any kind of transparency that is required.”
Melissa Nold from Mr. Burris’ office walked reporters through a number of cases in the 23 cases – a physically disabled Caucasian woman with deep bruising on her breasts and a deep cut to her head. Business people that have been abused.
“You have everyone across the spectrum, young and old, black and white to show that Vallejo, despite their contentions, that they have a violence problem,” Ms. Nold said.
She said that the city manager and city attorney are taking the position that the media is skewing these incidents,” she said. “There’s a long list of evidence that these things are happening.”
Many of these people “have never been arrested and have had no contact with the police.”
She made the point, “These aren’t even necessarily the folks that you would typically see in these cases” – for instance middle aged white business owners who ended up with broken bones. “All of whom ended up without any criminal charges filed against them (the officers).”
Attorney Adante Pointer indicated, “One of the things you’ll notice in the lawsuit is that we’re asking for intervention and for the city to be enjoined from continuing to engage in unconstitutional policing.”
He said, “We’re looking for an independent monitor to come in” to make sure that the police department is “complying with the law.” Given that the mayor, city manager, and police chief “are unwilling to police the police department, we feel that the police department needs outside intervention in order to make sure they do what’s right by the city of Vallejo.”
Vallejo has hired a police auditor to oversee the police department.
“That may not be enough,” John Burris said, noting that up to this point the city has been unwilling to accept any responsibility or acknowledge there’s a problem.
They are pushing for the unusual step of putting the department into a receivership.
John Burris explained that “a receivership means… a federal monitor can in effect take control of the department. That can only come after you have a finding of discriminatory law enforcement and the court then decides that the department’s conduct is so bad that it cannot police themselves.”
He called this “a drastic step” and noted that this would be only one of a very few departments in the entire country that would be put into a receivership. Not only would they have to show a pattern and practice, but “they would have to have expressed an unwillingness to change their ways.”
Receivership is a rare step, Mr. Burris acknowledged. “It is not something that is used lightly,” he said, noting there are a lot of consent decree orders where departments are under federal jurisdiction because there is a consent decree where the court takes jurisdiction to determine what the department needs to do in order to get in compliance.
—David M. Greenwald reporting