Delon Thurston sometimes drives home from work wearing disposable plastic gloves.
The gloves press an oily therapeutic treatment — turmeric, black pepper, lavender, coconut oil — into her pores, soothing her achy hands and wrists after her shifts as a massage therapist.
“It helps increase the circulation,” Thurston told me. “My carpals are really important if I want to sustain my career.”
But to the Vallejo police officers who arrested her on Oct. 30, 2018, a driver wearing plastic gloves suggested something very different.
“Car thieves often wear latex gloves while driving stolen cars to avoid leaving fingerprints,” Detective Kevin Barreto stated in his arrest report.
Thurston’s encounter with police, which took place after she parked in her driveway, would result in her being pulled from her car, pushed to the ground and, she says in a lawsuit against the city, inappropriately fondled through her clothing by a female officer during a pat-down at the scene.
The city has denied the allegations and has moved to dismiss the lawsuit.
Thurston is among at least 60 people since 2014 — most of them people of color like herself — who say they were victims of heavy-handed tactics by city officers. Police stops that were initiated for minor infractions, or for unclear reasons, often turn into violent encounters in Vallejo, a Chronicle investigation found.
Residents, some backed by video evidence, accuse police of dragging them from cars, attacking them with dogs and pummeling them with batons, boots and fists. In claims filed at City Hall and lawsuits filed in county and federal courts, people describe coming away bruised and bloodied.
Review after June killing
These encounters are coming under review by state Attorney General Xavier Becerra. His “review and reform agreement” comes amid controversy over a Vallejo officer’s June 2 killing of Sean Monterrosa, a 22-year-old San Franciscan.
According to a police account and body-camera footage, both posted on the department’s website, the officer was responding with two colleagues to a looting report at a Walgreens. The officer fired a rifle from the back seat of a truck, through the windshield, as the truck pulled into the parking lot.
Monterrosa, who police said was crouching in the lot, allegedly had a hammer but no gun. A statement released by the Vallejo police officers union said the officer fired “as a last resort” after Monterrosa “grabbed an object in his waistband that appeared to be the butt of a gun.” The killing is under investigation by the OIR Group, a police oversight company, and Becerra’s office is investigating the alleged destruction of evidence — the truck’s shattered windshield.
In July, the department’s troubles deepened when an attorney representing a former captain said that some officers had altered their badges — bending one tip of a seven-point star — to mark that they had killed people. The ex-captain, John Whitney, filed a legal claim asserting he was fired for speaking up about “misconduct issues” in the agency. The city did not formally respond to the claim, meaning Whitney may now file a lawsuit to pursue his complaint.
Vallejo Police Chief Shawny Williams, who upon his hiring in November said the department would “chart a new direction,” said in a news release that he was starting a third-party investigation into the alleged badge-bending, which was first reported by news site Open Vallejo.
Monterrosa was the 19th person killed by Vallejo officers since 2010, according to the Solano County district attorney, an unusually high number for a city of 122,000 people. Vallejo finds itself under a spotlight as communities across the country reckon with the criminal justice system’s unequal treatment of people of color. It’s a reality faced by many who have lived in Vallejo for years now.
But in drawing attention and often outrage, Vallejo’s police killings can end up masking a litany of other, nonfatal police interactions gone bad.
Complaints about these encounters are part of a severely strained relationship between many citizens and cops in a city with immense racial disparities in police interactions. In one of the Bay Area’s most diverse communities — Vallejo is 30% white, 25% Asian, 22% Black and 20% Latino — 69% of police officers are white, and just 7% are Black, according to Police Department data. In 2018, 49% of the 2,315 people arrested by Vallejo police were Black, the FBI reported.
This story draws from interviews with dozens of Vallejo citizens, activists, attorneys and current and former city officials and a review of lawsuits, police reports and almost 150 complaints filed with the city against police. Some complaints are over issues like damaged property during police car and foot chases, but at least 60, from October 2014 to June 2019, allege excessive force by Vallejo officers.
Aside from Joe Allio, who spoke to me last year during his four months as interim police chief — and is now interim assistant chief — and a brief interview with the new chief, Williams, department and police union officials have ignored my repeated requests for response to the cases discussed, as have the City Manager’s Office and the Solano County District Attorney’s Office. Their silence makes it impossible to fully understand the perspective of the officers involved in these events.
My efforts to interview private lawyers who represent Vallejo officers in internal affairs investigations have also been unsuccessful. And the results of those investigations are generally not made public, under California law.
Vallejo’s police officers face unique challenges. According to FBI data, the city, with 114 officers, had the highest number of criminal cases per officer in the state in 2018. So far this year, Vallejo has seen 21 killings, giving it the highest per-capita homicide rate among Bay Area cities. Fatigue from long overtime shifts, the city police union said in a recent statement, “results in dangerous working conditions and adversely impacts citizen safety.”
But that doesn’t account for the hard, violent turn that many confrontations with police take here.
At City Council meetings, angry residents have frequently aired their complaints about police, sometimes in shouted frustration and protests, to no avail.
The elements of Delon Thurston’s story are representative of what many Vallejoans shared with me about their police encounters. According to her lawsuit, she’d noticed a black sport utility vehicle behind her as she drove home from work to eat dinner. She’d just pulled into her driveway when the vehicle behind flashed police lights at her.
The officer, Barreto, got out and informed Thurston that she’d failed to signal when she turned into her apartment complex, according to his report. Her lawsuit states that she had in fact signaled and that the officer accused her only of making “an abrupt left turn.” In an interview, she said she found that perplexing and the officer’s brusque demeanor threatening.
Riding with Barreto that day was Officer Jarrett Tonn, the police report said. Tonn is the officer who shot and killed Sean Monterrosa, according to a civil rights lawsuit filed by Monterrosa’s family. As the officers, one holding a Taser shock weapon, approached her car, Thurston said, she felt vulnerable, thinking of police violence she’d heard about.
She told Barreto that his manner made her uncomfortable, and rolled up her car window. Barreto’s report says Thurston reached for a bag on the seat, an assertion Thurston denies. He opened the door and pulled the 5-foot-3-inch woman from her car. He then pushed her to the ground, scraping her nose and forehead, Thurston says in her lawsuit.
More officers arrived, and a female officer patted her down. Then, Thurston says in her suit, the officer initiated a pat search of her “body, breasts and genitals … in a manner that left her feeling degraded and violated.” The city denied the allegations.
When the officer asked why she was crying, Thurston responded, “You guys are humiliating me.”
Before Thurston was arrested and taken from her home, Tonn had verified that the car was hers, according to the police report.
“There’s no repercussions. Nothing’s happening after this stuff happens,” Thurston said. “It’s OK for these people to still be on the streets serving our community. I’ve cried for a lot of people.”
$15 million in payouts
“It’s bad.” That’s how Allio, Vallejo’s interim police chief from July to October last year, summed up the departmental statistics he saw when he arrived. Based on my research, indicators of trouble in the city are numerous.
During the October 2014 to June 2019 tenure of former Chief Andrew Bidou, a period when calls for reform escalated, the police force was the subject of 147 legal claims seeking damages. Sixty of them alleged excessive use of force or civil rights violations, according to a review of the claims by The Chronicle. Bidou could not be reached for comment.
Claims that aren’t settled often lead to lawsuits, and Vallejo, as of last month, faced more than two dozen suits alleging police misconduct. Since 2003, Vallejo has agreed to pay more than $15 million to settle such suits, city records show.
The latest: a $5.7 million settlement announced this month for the family of Ronell Foster, who was killed in February 2018 after Officer Ryan McMahon chased him, shocked him with a Taser and struck him with a flashlight before shooting him, according to McMahon’s statements to police investigators and body-camera footage. The city and McMahon settled without admitting fault.
According to a police press release after the killing, there was a “violent physical struggle” between McMahon and Foster, during which “the officer discharged his duty firearm in self-defense.”
Attorneys for the family said Foster was shot in the back after grabbing the flashlight and attempting to flee the officer’s blows. McMahon, who was cleared of charges by prosecutors, told interviewers that “he knew that simply being hit in the head with his flashlight could lead to his death,” the investigator’s report said. “Without even thinking about it, I had my firearm out,” McMahon said. “I’m not going to die back here. I’m not going to be a victim.”
In August, reports released publicly by the department showed Chief Williams had moved to fire McMahon in connection with another fatal shooting last year. The officer is on paid leave.
As a result of the payouts, the California Joint Powers Risk Management Authority, the agency that served as the city’s insurance company for about three decades, notified Vallejo in 2017 that if it didn’t agree to boost its deductible from $500,000 to $2.5 million, it would be removed from the pool. It was the first time such a step was taken in the authority’s history, said Tony Giles, the company’s general manager. Vallejo instead joined PRISM, or Public Risk Innovation, Solutions, and Management, a risk-sharing pool.
Since 2010, 44 Vallejo police officers have shot people, and 14 have been involved in multiple shootings, according to police and city records. Yet no officers have been charged by the Solano County District Attorney’s Office, for any reason.
Allio came to Vallejo after retiring as chief of police in Fairfield, a city just up Interstate 80 from Vallejo with a similar population size. He said Vallejo’s record was unlike any other he’d seen. During the period that Vallejo had 147 claims against its police force, Fairfield had 131. But only 30 of those alleged civil rights abuses or excessive force by officers — half of Vallejo’s number.
Nor is Vallejo’s pattern of legal settlements typical, in the experience of Brien Farrell, a city resident who was once Santa Rosa’s city attorney. Vallejo’s millions of dollars in payouts amounts to “evidence that there are problems,” he said, “and that the city views the risk of a larger jury verdict as a significant risk, and that they’d rather pay this amount than risk a jury ordering them to pay even more.”
Before he left his interim post, yielding to Chief Williams, Allio said the department needed to take a close look at itself.
“We can’t say, ‘We’re fine, we’re just getting sued,’” Allio said. “We have to say, ‘What are our priorities?’ And they start with the preservation of human life.”
Now, state Department of Justice officials will be doing the looking. Becerra said his agency’s review will try “to support effective policing through improvements in use-of-force procedures, anti-bias and community policing, and accountability, by focusing on training, policy, and transparency in alignment with national standards, best practices, current and emerging research and community expectations.”
About two months after he took over the department, I asked Williams whether he was concerned about the number of use-of-force complaints.
“I’m not here to dissect what happened in the past,” he said. “It would be unfair and unjust for me to go back and say that there’s a problem without examining each case. When force is applied, the way that it works — I think it’s important to educate the public, too — is that there’s a review process.”
Williams contracted with Police Strategies LLC of Seattle to build data-analysis tools to track police use of force. The firm previously worked for Williams’ former employer, the San Jose Police Department.
“If you can prevent problems before they happen through exceptional training, and then address them if they do happen, then you’re creating a culture of accountability, a culture of transparency, a culture of trust,” Williams told me. “As a police organization, that’s what we want.”
‘I’m in church!’
Vallejo officials took little action on the flood of complaints when Bidou was chief. Not until August 2019, after protesters against police violence showed up at numerous council meetings, did the city engage the OIR Group for an assessment of the department. The report, released June 12, called on the department to shift “to a mindset that revolves less around aggressive enforcement and more around problem-solving and engagement.”
The report noted a lack of racial and gender diversity in the city’s police force, and a need to strengthen officer performance and accountability “by formalizing supervisorial review processes across a range of key areas, and developing mechanisms for constructive accountability.”
The report praised the Vallejo use-of-force policy, updated in April, stating that officers should “avoid physical confrontations and increase the likelihood of voluntary compliance or cooperation where possible.” The department banned choke holds and strangleholds on June 16.
That approach had not been emphasized in the past, the report said. And people who say they’ve suffered at the hands of Vallejo police agree. Their stories raise an array of questions.
Jose Villalobos, 47, was at St. Catherine of Siena Catholic Church with his wife and three children on Nov. 4, 2018, when plainclothes officers struck him in the cheek and tackled him as he walked to the church restroom, according to his lawsuit. Villalobos, a pipe layer who has no vision in one eye, said he thought he was being robbed by criminals. He recalled crying out, “What’s going on? I’m in church! I don’t have any money!”
The officers wrestled him to the floor. He recounted hitting his head as he struggled. The men asked no questions, said his lawyer, Thomas Seabaugh. They didn’t ask for his ID, but cuffed him and put him in a car, Seabaugh said.
The cops — whom Villalobos’ lawsuit identifies as Barreto, Tonn and Jerome Bautista — were looking for someone else that day. By the time they realized it, Villalobos had a 2-centimeter gash in his head and a concussion, hospital documents provided by Seabaugh show. Villalobos was released and not charged. The officers denied the allegations, according to court documents.
Vallejo, in response to the ongoing lawsuit, acknowledged the undercover officers contacted Villalobos near the church restroom, believing he looked like a suspect in a criminal case. But the city issued a blanket denial of the rest of his allegations.
More than a year and half later, Villalobos still experiences pain in his left shoulder. He has difficulty sleeping and has numbness in his fingers. He might have to have surgery, his attorney said.
“It was a terrible injustice from beginning to end,” Seabaugh said. “He wasn’t threatening anyone, he wasn’t punching anyone, he wasn’t kicking anyone. Nobody was in danger. Nobody had been injured. He was unarmed. So even if it was the person that they were looking for, it’s not clear why any of this force was necessary.”
Complaints pile up
Many more disturbing accusations emerge from claims The Chronicle obtained from the city through a public records request. People who weren’t committing crimes in the first place, like Delon Thurston, have ended up being arrested on accusations that they resisted. In many cases, Black men said Vallejo officers aggressively detained them for dubious reasons.
Nickolas Pitts, for instance, alleged in a lawsuit that he was carrying trash to the curb of his apartment on April 4, 2016, when Officers Matthew Komoda and Ryan McLaughlin jumped out of a car with guns drawn, then punched him in the head and ripped out some of his dreadlocks, drawing blood.
Pitts said he was taken into custody and cited for jaywalking. According to court documents, he pleaded not guilty and requested a trial, but Komoda and McLaughlin didn’t show up, and the case was dismissed. Vallejo denied the allegations of excessive force but paid Pitts $17,500 in a settlement, according to documents provided by the city.
Jason Anderson, another Black man, says in a lawsuit he was making deliveries for used car dealer AutoLinx on June 9, 2015, when motorcycle Officer James Melville ordered him to pull over. After Anderson got out, a second officer, Robert Herndon, ordered Anderson to put up his hands before shocking him with a Taser, leaving him unable to comply with orders to roll over, the suit says.
Anderson alleges that as more officers arrived, he was punched and kicked, and that he heard the officers concoct a story to justify the beating. According to court records, the city denied the allegations and moved to dismiss the claim, and ultimately agreed to a $75,000 settlement.
Robert Strong, a 23-year-old Black man working as a transit aide for people with special needs, says in a complaint against the city that he was walking to his car after dropping off a client at home on April 19, 2017. He says Tonn drove up and asked him what he was doing in the neighborhood.
Tonn said Strong’s license plate was expired, but the expiration was two weeks away, Strong’s legal claim states. Strong says he told the officer he was recording the encounter and that when Tonn reached for the phone, Strong pulled his arm away. Tonn threw him to the ground and placed him in a choke hold, the claim states.
Strong filed a federal civil rights lawsuit. According to a status report filed by the parties last month, Strong and the city were having fruitful settlement discussions “which may obviate the need to set trial should the discussions come to a successful conclusion.”
Adrian Burrell, a Marine veteran, said he was slammed against a wall while using his cell phone to record a Vallejo officer detaining his cousin in the driveway of Burrell’s home in January 2019. Burrell, who is suing Vallejo, said he suffered a concussion from his head striking a wooden porch pillar. He was let go when the officer learned he had served in the Marines. He said the officer thanked him for his service.
The city moved to dismiss the lawsuit. Both Burrell and the city requested a jury trial, which is scheduled to begin in November 2021, according to court documents.
‘People who resist’
Vallejo City Manager Greg Nyhoff welcomed the Department of Justice’s review of the local force, saying in a statement that the state would help the city “implement better police practices in Vallejo.” But during a June 2019 City Council discussion on police calls and use-of-force statistics, Nyhoff defended the department.
“There are people who resist,” said Nyhoff, who has declined repeated interview requests. “There are people with mental illness who you just have to use force, sometimes for their own health or well-being.”
A month later, Nyhoff and Mayor Bob Sampayan sent a letter to Becerra’s office seeking a meeting to discuss the city’s plan to improve relations between the Police Department and the community. It’s not clear what actions resulted from that meeting, but it would take almost a year — and the death of Monterrosa — before Becerra announced his office was stepping in.
Perhaps the state review will be able to quantify something that’s been nearly impossible to nail down: the true extent of excessive force, how deep it runs. Vallejo’s use-of-force policy requires officers to document “any use of force,” but incidents are self-reported, raising the prospect of underreporting.
The figures that the Police Department does release show that, from 2014 to 2018, Vallejo officers reported using force in 822 of 16,517 arrests. But, as a 2018 report by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights points out, with no mandatory federal or standardized reporting guidelines in place, use-of-force data for police departments across the nation are “insufficient to determine if instances are occurring more frequently.”
When we first met last summer, Thurston, a soft-spoken and spiritual woman, said she still had pain in her shoulder and lower back from her police encounter — pain that did not respond to the concoction she uses for her wrists and hands.
Thurston, who grew up in Vallejo, said she doesn’t understand what prompted the officers to behave the way they did. After she was arrested on suspicion of resisting officers, the Solano County District Attorney’s Office charged her but later dropped the prosecution. She feels police targeted her.
“I could’ve been a Sandra Bland situation,” she said, referring to the Black woman who died in a Texas jail in 2015 after a confrontational traffic stop for failing to signal a lane change. “They could’ve done anything to me at that point. Anything.”
After Monterrosa’s death, and amid the protests demanding racial justice that followed the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Chief Williams issued a statement welcoming Becerra’s review.
A shift in tone — maybe. But it is the actions ahead that will show whether life changes for people of color in Vallejo.