A nine-month NBC Bay Area investigation has found that a small group of Vallejo police officers are repeatedly involved in use of force incidents.
The Investigative Unit examined two decades worth of files at courthouses, online, and public ‘use of force’ records from Vallejo’s police department itself. The search revealed a pattern of “recurring use of force” among a small group of specific officers.
Out of nearly 200 use of force cases, 14 individual officers’ names kept coming up again and again. And, at least one of those 14 officers was named in nearly every use of force report, lawsuit or misconduct report.
“I feel like they were going to kill me.”
Nicholas Pitts, a Vallejo security guard and musician, filed one of the lawsuits NBC Bay Area’s Investigative Unit reviewed. According to Pitts and his legal complaint, early one morning after working the night shift, Pitts left his apartment to put his baby’s diapers in the trash. “I’ve got keys fishing in my hand, and as I'm walking up, I see a patrol car just coming down the block,” said Pitts, adding that as he walked back toward his apartment, he heard a chilling yell, “Freeze! Get off your feet. Get him. Get down! Get down!” Pits said he heard Vallejo Police officers yell at him, as they drew their guns. “Guns drawn at me, guns drawn at me!” he said, recalling the moment. And then, “They beat me all the way to the ground. I'm talking about (beating) my legs and my neck. I'm talking about knees in my back.” Asked if he was scared, Pitts said, “I feel like they were going to kill me.”
The officers arrested Pitts for jaywalking, but later dropped the charge. One of the officers who arrested Pitts, Matthew Komoda, is on the list of 14 officers who appear most frequently in use of force cases. Nicholas Pitts sued Komoda and the Vallejo Police Department, and received $17,500 in a settlement, though the City of Vallejo admitted no wrongdoing.
Watch an extended interview with Pitts below.
“We can’t do the job we want to do”
“I'm not comfortable at all talking about names because some of these are in litigation,” said Police Chief Joe Allio, as he reviewed NBC Bay Area’s list of police officers with repeated ‘use of force’ cases from Vallejo Police Department. Allio oversaw Vallejo Police as interim chief between July and October of 2019, while the city looked for a permanent Chief. “At the end of the day, I need you to know we are aware of this. We have done investigations. There has been action taken,” said Allio.
However, Allio rejects any blanket assertion that all the officers on the list are ‘rogue cops.’ “There is a belief by some that the use of force multiple times by the same officer means the officer must be bad,” said Allio. “It doesn't mean there's a problem, but it means we have to stop and examine whether there is or is not a problem.”
Allio said a frequent dilemma Vallejo’s Police Department faces is a lack of staffing – and burnout. That, he says, contributes to an overtaxed and overworked patrol force that can result in issues between officers and the community. “We can't do the job that we want to do because there are so few of us,” Allio said.
For example, on busy weekend shifts, the department often has only 8 officers available. “We're handling two hundred plus calls a day. Those officers are going to be only officers coming to every critical incident every night for years at a time,” he said.
Under those conditions, said Allio, it’s impossible for officers to spend time building trust with the community, and to give officers the training they need. Vallejo PD had 103 officers in early 2019, has since hired 3 officers, and has 8 more potential officers going to the police academy in the Spring of 2020.
“He grabbed me, and I kept saying, hey what are you doing?!”
Delon Thurston, a massage therapist, said she was on her way home from work when a Vallejo Police Office pulled her over in the driveway to her apartment. “He told me I turned aggressively,” said Thurston. She said she became concerned when she saw another officer at her passenger window with a taser and several other officers nearby. As she reached for her license and registration, she began to roll up her window. “He opened that door and snatched me so quick,” said Thurston, referring to the officer at her car door. “Iremember very vividly. I was like, hey, why are you touching me?”
Thurston sued Vallejo P.D. over the confrontation saying officers violated her civil rights. Thurston’s lawsuit says she was pulled out of the car, thrown to the ground, and then fondled by an officer. In its response to her lawsuit, the City of Vallejo denies officers acted inappropriately during the confrontation with Thurston.
Of the nearly 20 years worth of ‘use of force cases’ NBC Bay Area’s Investigative Unit reviewed, the City of Vallejo and its officers were named 145 times in different state and federal lawsuits. Vallejo paid more than twice as much money to settle those lawsuits than any other similar sized city in its insurance pool.
“Mistakes have been made”
“When there are so many settlements and payments that are substantial, that reflects agreement by the experts that there have been mistakes made,” said Brian Farrell, an attorney who used to defend police officers in Santa Rosa. Farrell said Vallejo Police’s record of use of force over the decades troubles him.
“Not acceptable. It's not normal and it's not explained by staffing. And it's gone on for 20 years,” said Farrell.
In all, 19 people were killed in these incidents. Others were beaten or choked by police, suffering collapsed lungs, and fractured bones.
Out of a total of 182 different legal records, police reports, and lawsuits involving Vallejo Police Officers, there were 59 cases in which individual Vallejo police officers were named. Out of those 59 cases, 57 include at least one of the 14 names listed again and again.
“If I could take every one of my shootings back, I would.”
At the very top of the list, with nine cases, is former Vallejo Police Officer Sean Kenney who says he left the department on his own accord back in 2018 because of health issues.
Asked if he was a bad cop, Kenney said, “I worked a very bad part of town for most of my career. I was part of high risk units, whether it was the SWAT team or the fugitive task force. And we're exposed to a lot of violent crime.”
Among those incidents involving Kenney were three fatal shootings. “If I could take every single one of my shootings back, I would - I absolutely would,” said Kenney, adding, “I can guarantee you that there's not a single one of those officers on that list that's going ‘Oh,. I just want hurt people all day long.
Kenney does admit that police work can get the heart pumping.
“I'll be perfectly candid,” he said. “Sure, there(are) people that enjoy the adrenaline rush that you get from being in a car chase - finding a violent criminal with a gun and high five each other afterwards. ‘Oh, man, great arrest! Good job!’”
“But if there is anybody that is coming in his profession that wants to just beat people up for whatever reason or shoot people. You're in the wrong job. I'm sorry, it's not going to work for you,” Kenney said.
Watch an extended interview with Sean Kenney below.
But mistrust from the Vallejo community runs high among some residents.
“They're killing families!! We have children that are suffering from PTSD, having nightmares,” said Angela Sullivan. Her nephew, Ronell Foster, was riding his bicycle at night – without lights – when he was pursued by Officer Ryan McMahon. McMahon shot and killed Foster, later reporting Foster grabbed his flashlight and tried to attack him with it. McMahon’s name is also among the 14 officers with three instances of ‘use of force.’
"The Buck Stops Here"
“It's my job to improve what's going on in the city,” said City Manager Greg Nyhoff, who admits that some residents of Vallejo are afraid of the police.
the last thing I would ever want to hear, is that my community is afraid of my
police department,” Nyhoff said. After two years as City Manager of
Vallejo, “I’m an absolute believer in doing independent assessments and then putting them in order of priority and then fixing them and being transparent about what those weaknesses are and what you’re going to do about them.”
Nyhoff, too, is concerned about the large financial settlements Vallejo has paid for lawsuits. “If you’re paying out big chunks of money on insurance claims, you're not able to use that money to provide services, to provide more staff to serve the community. So, it's just money that disappears and you can never use taxpayer dollars. So to me, it's a huge problem.
Nyhoff said he’s not qualified to respond to NBC Bay Area’s list of police officers linked to use of force cases because that role belongs to the Chief of Police. But when asked if there are people who are not meant to be officers, he said, “You cannot afford to have someone who shouldn't be a police officer, be a police officer. If you have that person on your department, it absolutely needs to be dealt with, because you're talking about human life.”
Correction: An earlier version of this report stated that Nickolas Pitts received a settlement of $75,000 from the City of Vallejo. The settlement amount was $17,500.