Vallejo Police have the highest number of people shot by police officers, per capita, in Northern California. That’s the third highest in the entire state. NBC Bay Area’s Investigative Unit spent a month riding along with officers, speaking with community leaders and meeting with Police Chief Andrew Bidou to learn why.
Since 2011, Vallejo Police have shot and killed 16 people. Ten of those shot by police officers were people of color. A data analysis by NBC Bay Area of deaths in custody data from the California Attorney General’s office found that the 16 shooting deaths by Vallejo police officers during the last seven and a half years adds up to one of the highest per capita death rates at the hands of police in the state. Only two police departments in California have higher per capita rates: San Bernardino, with 17.7, and South Gate, with 14.7, according to the California Attorney General data.
Two shooting cases, Willie McCoy and Ronell Foster, are still under investigation. The Solano County District Attorney’s Office has cleared Vallejo police officers of wrongdoing after reviewing each of the other 14 cases using the procedures outlined in the Solano County Fatal Incident Protocol.
According to that state Attorney General’s data, Vallejo police officers have killed more than 13 people per 100,000 residents since 2011. With Vallejo’s population size of 122,000, that’s a per capita rate of 13.8, which is considerably higher than any other Bay Area city.
NBC Bay Area’s Investigative Unit also compared Vallejo with its next door neighbor, Richmond, a city with a similar population and high violent crime rate.
In the time Vallejo police killed 16 people, a per capita rate of 13.8, Richmond officers killed three, a per capita rate of 2.9
Linda Daniels, Ronald Scott and Jimmie Jackson are with the NAACP in Vallejo.
“This can’t continue,” said Daniels, “Are you really, really sure that there wasn't another way,” she asks, referring to the killings.
“It's come to the point now where we see the car, and we don't see a server or a protector we see an adversary,” said Jackson, local NAACP President.
Daniels, Jackson and Scott say they see the killings as the result of deeply rooted problems in Vallejo, a city forced into bankruptcy during the recession in 2008. That bankruptcy was caused in part by the recession and a drastic drop in property values, unemployment setting off a tide of foreclosures that reduced city tax revenue and prompted city leaders to cut its police force in half, It’s an event everyone NBC Bay Area talked to agreed is something the city has yet to fully recover from.
“The cause is the lack of money, the lack of training, the lack of personnel that feel like they're a part of the city,” said Jackson. When asked for solutions, he answered simply: “Hiring better officers. Not that we don't have some good ones. We have some great ones. But we also have some that are not so good, and we have to we have to understand that.”
FRIENDSHIP BAPTIST MISSIONARY CHURCH
“If we don't diversify the police department both in its leadership and its rank and file membership, if officers don't look like the community they're policing, it makes it much easier for misunderstandings to happen,” said Dr. Dante Quick, who serves as Senior Pastor at the Friendship Missionary Baptist Church.
Dr. Quick is convinced that one key in reducing the number of killings by Vallejo officers is to diversify the department so that it reflects the racial make-up of residents.
“Someone can say, 'I have black friends," and they are sincere. But if they don't understand how that black life is lived out, someone can say, 'Well, I work in a black neighborhood.' But if you can go to your enclave and your children don't go to institutions where black people live, it really doesn't matter,” Dr Quick said, “It's hard to kill somebody if you know their name.”
On Feb. 9, police shot 20-year-old rap artist Willie McCoy to death in his car after he fell asleep at a Taco Bell drive-through with a gun in his lap. McCoy’s cousin, David Harrison, watched bodycam footage of the shooting at the Vallejo Police Department.
“I felt the pain of all the other families that I have witnessed on television in news reports,” Harrison said. “I felt their pain.”
“You lose trust,” said Harrison, after seeing the shooting of his cousin Willie, “and you become more vicious because you don't want to be vulnerable. And you become fed up. Just think of being a man and feeling like I can't protect my family I can't protect my children.”
Asked what needs to change, Harrison answered: “Legislation needs to change to make it a level playing field. You know, officers have to be held responsible for their actions. They have too much power. And we the people are powerless.”
POLICE CHIEF ANDREW BIDOU
Police Chief Andrew Bidou oversees 103 officers currently working at the Vallejo Police Department.
“I think that you know everybody should be very critical of the police and in officer involved shootings particularly, especially where we are in our country,” Bidou said. “But I think that it's important to also recognize that we should (be) equally critical of the events that led up to that. And I don't see that happening a lot right now. I think there's a lot of factors in Vallejo that lead to these things. And so one is you have an under-resourced police department. You have a very high crime city.”
Speaking specifically about the killing of Willie McCoy, Bidou said his officers didn’t have time to put their plan to end the confrontation peacefully in place. “They were actually in the midst of a plan to block that car and isolate that incident to protect the the surrounding public. That person (McCoy) awoke on their own. And officers right have limited choices at that time,” Bidou said.
When asked to comment on the fact that some people in the Vallejo community feel they are at war with the police department, Bidou answered: “Well that's honestly that's crazy.” Despite the numbers, he believes the police are doing as well as they can. “This city has somewhere in the neighborhood of 60,000 police contacts a year, around 3,000 arrests and somewhere, you know, 150 of those result in some sort of injury from (police) force. I mean the numbers are very, very small.”
Asked what can be done to reduce the shootings, Bidou said, “Certainly, you know we should strive to do better every single day.” He added, “But we're only focused on a police problem. We're not considering that there's a community problem. You know, why do these young people have guns? Why do they need them? Why is our crime rates so high? You know, why are these shootings occurring? These are what these officers are responding to every day. Is that not part of the problem?”
SERGEANT STEVE DARDEN
“For someone to think that you know as a police officer I get up every day and want to come in and kill someone, they’re absolutely nuts,” said Sgt. Steve Darden, a 23-year veteran with Vallejo PD. On a recent Saturday night, an urgent call comes in over the radio. A man is leading police on a high-speed chase. He has driven into the city of Vallejo. During the chase, he called his mother and told her he was going to commit “suicide by cop.”
“Suicide by cop doesn't mean that you're just gonna let us kill you,” said Darden. “That means that you might try to take as many of us (with you) as you can before we have to kill you.”
Darden works the busy weekend night shifts. “What our community needs to understand is we don't have enough police officers to do the job the way it needs to be done,” said Darden.
Before filing for bankruptcy in 2008, the city of Vallejo had 158 sworn police officers. In 2009, the number went down to 115 and hit its lowest point in 2013, with 77 officers on the force. The highest number of shootings roughly correlates with the lowest number of officers.
Darden believes that many of the problems at Vallejo PD are rooted in the city’s financial woes. “Because we're among the lowest paid, we can't compete with the neighboring agencies who are attracting experienced officers” he said. “The low pay means that our applicant pool consists of inexperienced people.”
Darden points out that good policing takes years on the job. “When you become a police officer it takes you probably a good three to five years just to figure out what the heck you're doing,” he said. “A five- to 10-year cop, 10- to 15-year cop is much more experienced and much more comfortable, much more relaxed around people. That's just how it is.”
“When we hear the community say that we don't care about them and, you know, all the police do is terrorize us. I mean, we know that that's not true,” said Darden. “But at the same time, that's how they perceive us to be based on what they see. So, it's unfortunate, but that's our reality. And all we can do is just continue to do the job the best that we can.”
In the weeks NBC Bay Area’s Investigative Unit rode with Darden, he and his officers saved a little boy and his mother from a pitbull attack, de-escalated a potential stabbing, helped a cyclist who had been hit by a car, and restored order at a house party after a shooting. And then there was the man on the highway who said he wanted to die from what’s now called “suicide by cop.”
Despite guns drawn, the standoff ended without any shots fired.
“As long as you listen to us, you won't get shot,” said Darden. “Now, if he would have started reaching in his waistband - different story.”