When George Floyd was killed on May 25 by Minneapolis police it launched yet again another national discussion on policing—the same one that began in 2015 when it was Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott and many others.
Almost no one could defend the actual conduct of the police in this case—so police and their defenders seek to minimize it. Hey, did you know there are millions of interactions between police and citizens each year, and 97 percent of them have no problem.
The other is the few bad apples theory. Derek Chauvin, the office who kneeled on the neck of Floyd for nearly nine minutes represents one of the few bad apples—yes he had 17 complaints over the years, but he was an exception rather than the rule.
The first point is on the surface problematic—after all, it usually takes one murder for an ordinary person to be incarcerated for life—and you could be a saint up until the time of that murder and it doesn’t change much.
But here, I will argue that the few bad apples theory is really misplaced. On June 2, Sean Monterrosa was shot and killed by Officer Jarrett Tonn of the Vallejo Police Department. While the POA has attempted to destroy evidence and hide his name, we now know that Tonn had a record—he was named in an excessive force case and involved in three other officer-involved shootings.
Vallejo itself is a problem—Monterrosa follows the 2019 killing of Willie McCoy, also under questionable conditions.
Vallejo faces a California DOJ review after 18 fatal police shootings in the last decade. Vallejo is a city of just 122,000 people.
And it keeps getting worse. An investigation by independent journalists, Open Vallejo, found that of 51 current and former Vallejo officers who have been involved in fatal shootings since 2000, at least 14 had their badges bent by a colleague afterward.
The state was already investigating the possibility the president of the POA had destroyed evidence in the recent fatal shooting of Sean Monterrosa.
The police chief says he is “deeply disturbed” by the allegations. “If there is credible evidence found, I will expand the inquiry into an official investigation,” Chief Shawny Williams said in the statement.
However, shortly after Open Vallejo published its story, Lt. Michael Nichelini, the Vallejo police union president, called the story “beyond inflammatory”in a statement obtained by the Mercury News. He said that he was not aware of the alleged badge-bending practice. “Frankly, it’s a ridiculous notion,” he said.
Vallejo police announced it is launching a third-party investigation into the practice of badge bending first reported by Open Vallejo.
“We’ve received statements from two different sources within the Vallejo Police Department that badge bending has occurred,” said Chief Williams in a statement on Friday. “As a result of these very troubling and disturbing allegations, I’ve asked for an independent outside investigation to be completed by a third party.”
So right now you have a DOJ pattern and practice investigation into Vallejo, you have the AG’s office looking into the destruction of evidence, and now this.
What the AG has refused to do so far is investigate the shooting itself.
The key question how deep does this go into Vallejo Police.
Earlier this week, I calculated the extent to which the Monterrosa shooting had impacted the department. Remember there was not only the shooter, but several other officers on the scene, then you have the efforts of Nichelini with the POA to keep the name of the shooter from the public, and possibility obstruct justice through the obstruction of evidence.
And if the police chief really was informed that Monterrosa was on his knees rather than the ridiculous claims of the POA that he was taking an aggressive posture, armed only with a hammer, forcing the police to have no choice but to shoot him—then the chief himself may be complicit here.
Attorney John Burris told me, “I don’t want to believe that the chief deliberately destroyed evidence.”
But between the video and the destruction of evidence, the actions of the POA and the badge bending, this is a department deep in problems.
I reached out to someone familiar with the situation on the ground at Vallejo. She estimated that of the 110 sworn officers in the Vallejo Police Department, between 20 and 25 of them are bad officers.
But I think that is a low number. Because remember, in order for police officers to get away with use of force, shootings and other misconduct they have to be in a culture that allows them to. There are the people who have their badges bent. There are people who bend the badges. And the people who know about it and try to keep it quiet.
The question that we all must grapple with is whether Vallejo is exceptionally bad. I suspect the answer is yes.
But maybe we shouldn’t be so quick to exonerate police officers. Remember San Francisco—in 2012, federal agents were investigating corruption of plainclothes police officers and by 2015, when they were finally made public, they turned over thousands of text messages with fellow police officers, where they disparaged racial minorities, women and gays.
Some proclaimed “white power” and others disparaged Black and Brown police officers.
Our partners in San Francisco who have been studying police records there believe that the problem is maybe ten percent of all officers. But again, those officers can’t get away with bad conduct unless they have complicity of at least silence from many more.
When the Picnic Day incident happened in Davis in 2017, our examination at that time was that the number of problem officers in Davis was 10 to 15 percent.
Again, I think the problem of unconstitutional policing goes much further.
Most of this is simply based on use-of-force complaints. But what I have seen from being in court is that the amount of improper force is probably far higher than we know. I sat in a preliminary hearing where a man accused of shoplifting started walking away from police officers.
At this point he was not detained. They caught up to him, slammed him against a car and to the ground. And then he was charged with a PC section 69—resisting with force. The judge upheld the felony charge.
Three or four officers were involved. But this incident is probably more typical than not—no complaint, so it would not make use-of-force stats, it involved multiple officers, and there was no media coverage except for the fact that we happened to be in the courtroom.
We have not even gotten into other problems in the system beyond use of force. There is also the problem of “testilying” and other forms of police misconduct.
A 2018 article in the New York Times found that it was quite pervasive.
“Behind closed doors, we call it testilying,” said a New York City police officer, Pedro Serrano. “You take the truth and stretch it out a little bit.”
An investigation by the New York Times has found that on more than 25 occasions since January 2015, judges or prosecutors determined that a key aspect of a New York City police officer’s testimony was probably untrue.
The 2018 report echoed the more classic report from 1994 which found, “New York City police officers often make false arrests, tamper with evidence and commit perjury on the witness stand, according to a draft report of the mayoral commission investigating police corruption.”
That report found, “Perjury is perhaps the most widespread form of police wrongdoing facing today’s criminal justice system.”
The Times noted: “The report did not attempt to estimate what proportion of the department had engaged in such practices, but based its judgment on the commission’s two-year investigation and interviews with scores of officers.”
This gets to my point I have made over and over again—if you are basing your assessment of policing on officer-involved killings, you are missing far more commonplace problems with policing.
Perjury is far from benign.
The 2018 report concluded, “These cases are particularly troubling because erroneous identifications by witnesses have been a leading cause of wrongful convictions.”
Moreover, it is hard to catch.
“There’s no fear of being caught,” a Brooklyn officer who has been on the force for almost a decade told the Times. “You’re not going to go to trial and nobody is going to be cross-examined.”
While police officers can shoot and kill people, they can also lie and put innocent people away, often for decades.
The Times writes: “Police lying raises the likelihood that the innocent end up in jail – and that as juries and judges come to regard the police as less credible, or as cases are dismissed when the lies are discovered, the guilty will go free.”
But don’t worry, it’s just a few bad apples.
—David M. Greenwald reporting
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