Questions Surround Surge in Vallejo Police Shootings

By Alex Emslie
KQED

Shortly after midnight on an evening nearly two years ago, Vallejo police officers on the lookout for drunken drivers spotted a white 1999 Lexus speeding, without its lights on. When the officers turned on their lights and siren to pull the car over, police said later, the driver led them on a short chase that ended in back of an apartment building on a dead-end street.

The driver, Anton Barrett, and his teen-age son got out of the car and ran. Within minutes, the unarmed Barrett had been fatally shot, then shocked with a Taser. He was one of six people killed in 2012 by Vallejo police in officer-involved shootings.

Those half-dozen deadly incidents, occurring in one year in a city of fewer than 120,000 people, gave Vallejo a rate of fatal police-involved shootings dozens of times greater than the national average. The killings have prompted a stream of civil rights and wrongful death lawsuits against the city and its police department.

A review of those six deadly incidents shows that one member of the 91-person police force — Officer Sean Kenney — appears to have been involved in three of the fatal shootings. Even in the context of an understaffed force contending with a high rate of violent crime, some Vallejo residents and an independent criminal justice expert say the number of fatal shootings and the apparent repeated involvement of one officer raises questions about the department’s management and accountability.

Police Staffing Levels

Adding the police shootings to Vallejo’s 14 other homicides in 2012, the police department accounted for nearly one-third of the city’s 20 homicides for the year, a statistic that shocks Franklin Zimring, a UC Berkeley law professor and director of the law school’s criminal justice research program.

“If you were to ask me, have I ever heard in an American city of a situation in which the police force is responsible for 25 or 30 percent of total homicides in the community,” Zimring said, “the answer is I haven’t heard of that before, ever, and I would hope not to hear of it again.”

In 2012, the rate of fatal officer-involved shootings in Vallejo — which had about 118,000 residents — was about 38 times the national rate. The deaths have resulted in calls from Vallejo residents for the U.S. Justice Department to investigate Vallejo officers’ use of force, just as it has done with the Albuquerque Police Department. A recent Justice Department report found that Albuquerque police, who have shot and killed 25 people since 2010, have engaged in a “pattern or practice of excessive force that violates the Constitution and federal law.”

Zimring said 2012 doesn’t appear to be just a statistical anomaly. Vallejo police shot and killed three people in 2013 and another one last month.

“This is not merely lightning striking in 2012 — lightning keeps on striking in Vallejo,” Zimring said. “Use of lethal force, whether justified or not in individual cases, is systemically problematic in Vallejo in a way that compels a heck of a lot more attention than it’s been getting.”

In an email response to questions about fatal police shootings in Vallejo, City Manager Dan Keen said more than 75 percent of Vallejo’s homicides last year were gang-related, and police routinely encounter dangerous situations.

“In 2012 and 2013, through direct contact with citizens and Vallejo Police Officers, each year, more than 200 illegal firearms were seized from individuals in Vallejo,” Keen wrote. “In 2013, Vallejo Police Officers responded to hundreds of ‘shots-fired’ calls, including more than 200 shootings where individuals were victims of firearms violence.”

Yet the rate of fatal police shootings in Vallejo is far higher than in bigger Bay Area cities also dealing with high crime rates. In 2012, the rate of fatal officer-involved shootings per 100,000 residents by Vallejo police was 20 times the rate in both Oakland and San Francisco. In the same year, Oakland had one fatal officer-involved shooting, and San Francisco had two.

Murder Rate v OIS Rate

In lawsuits resulting from the Vallejo Police Department’s fatal shootings and excessive force complaints in 2012, Officer Sean Kenney’s name appears several times. He is confirmed to have been involved in the controversial killing of a suspect in a parked car and has been named as a shooter in lawsuits involving two other fatal incidents. He is also defendant in two suits alleging he used excessive force in nonfatal confrontations with suspects.

Vallejo Police Lt. Sid De Jesus said Kenney would not comment on any of the fatal officer-involved shooting incidents that allegedly involve him. Information about police officers’ personnel records are sealed by California law, so Kenney’s career is difficult to trace. A Napa City Police Department spokesman confirmed Kenney worked there prior to transferring to Vallejo, sometime around 2005. Kenney left that department in good standing, the spokesman said.

Kenney left Vallejo for the Hayward Police Department in early 2010 amid layoffs, according to the Vallejo Times Herald. He returned in August of 2011, according to Vallejo city documents, to be part of the department’s crime suppression unit.

The department has since made Kenney a detective.

Oakland attorney John Burris, who has represented clients in numerous complaints against Bay Area police departments, including fatal shootings, says Kenney’s reassignment isn’t surprising. He says he’s seen it before.

“It’s unseemly, though,” he says. “A detective may be involved in officer-involved shooting investigations, and there’s a person who does that who has cases outstanding and pending? Their credibility is called into question, but I’m not convinced the police care about that.”

Burris’s office is representing the family of Anton Barrett, the 41-year-old driver of the white Lexus speeding without headlights, and the first person allegedly shot and killed by Kenney in 2012.

May 28, 2012: The Anton Barrett Case

Anton Barrett. (Courtesy of Law Offices of John L. Burris)

Anton Barrett. (Courtesy of Law Offices of John L. Burris)

When the Lexus turned into a dead-end street, police say, Barrett and his son, Anton Frank Barrett, 18, jumped from their vehicle and fled on foot in different directions near Farragut and Wilson avenues in west Vallejo.

The younger Barrett heard gunshots coming from the direction his father had run, according to the lawsuit, and scrambled into some bushes to hide.

Meanwhile, the elder Barrett had encountered an officer — named in a subsequent civil rights lawsuit as Sean Kenney — who told him to stop and put his hands up. Here’s what happened next, according to the department account:

“The suspect did not comply and continued running towards the officer. The officer began backing up and telling the suspect several times to show him his hands. The suspect had his hands in his waistband area of his hooded sweat jacket. The suspect reached into his pocket and pull out a dark colored metal object. The officer believed the suspect was now armed, was in fear the suspect was going to kill him or shoot other officers. The officer fired his service weapon and struck the suspect several times. The suspect fell to the sidewalk but tried to get up.”

“The officer began telling the additional officers that the suspect had a gun. The suspect was immobilized by another officer who used his taser.”

The dark-colored object that police say Barrett reached for turned out to be a metal wallet.

While all that was happening, Officers Boyce, Thompson and a police canine named Yago caught up to the younger Barrett. The lawsuit alleges Thompson ordered the dog to attack Barrett, who was unarmed. After dragging him from the bushes, Boyce threw Barrett to the ground and handcuffed him, then leaned his knee on Barrett’s head as he questioned him. Then, the suit alleges, Thompson ordered the dog to again attack the handcuffed Barrett while threatening to kill the 18-year-old and calling him a “nigger.”

Adante Pointer, an Oakland-based civil rights attorney with the law offices of John Burris, is representing Anton Barrett and other members of his father’s family in their lawsuit against Vallejo. He said the repeated attack on the younger Barrett points to “the culture in terms of the way police are approaching how they deal with suspects and just the manner of how they’re dealing with the people of Vallejo.”

Nearly two years after Barrett died, the Police Department and Solano County District Attorney’s Office have yet to conclude their review of the shooting.

Sept. 2, 2012: The Mario Romero Case

In the early morning hours of Sept. 2, 2012, Vallejo police officers Kenney and Dustin Joseph were on their way to a reported burglary when they spotted two black men in a parked Ford Thunderbird about a block and a half from the reported crime.

A later review of the shooting by the Solano County District Attorney’s Office lays out the probable cause for Kenney and Joseph to approach Mario Romero, 23, in the driver’s seat of the Thunderbird, and its passenger, Joseph Johnson, 21 at the time: There had been a recent spike in gang-related gun violence in the area, the review says, and Kenney recalled a similar car described in one shooting incident about a month before.

These were also the only two people out on the street just after 4:30 a.m., and the vehicle’s occupants “appeared shocked to see the marked Vallejo Police unit coming down the street,” according to the district attorney’s review.

KQED’s Rachel Dornhelm talks to Alex Emslie about his reporting:

The review says both Joseph and Kenney exited their cruiser and Romero stepped out of the Thunderbird while reaching into his waistband. Joseph saw a gun in Romero’s hand, and Kenney saw what he thought was a movement of reaching for a gun. Both fired at Romero multiple times, and he fell back into the Thunderbird. Kenney and Joseph continued to shout for Romero to “show his hands.”

“When Romero re-emerged into view with both hands still clenched toward the center of his body like he was holding a firearm, [Officer] Kenney fired several more shots,” the district attorney’s review says.

The officers fired a third volley of gunshots at Romero as he “started to come up looking directly at [Officer] Kenney. … These shots appeared to have an effect, as both officers saw Mr. Romero settle back and stop moving.”

The Solano County coroner said Romero was shot 30 times, including three to the head, five to the neck, six to the torso, six to his upper right extremity, nine to his upper left extremity and one to the left thigh.

Passenger Joseph Johnson was also shot, surviving a single bullet wound to his pelvic area.

In a federal lawsuit filed against the police department, Romero’s three sisters say they were were in their home waiting for Johnson and Romero to come in. The women say they heard a commotion outside, went to a window and saw Officer Dustin Joseph open fire on the car.

Romero’s sisters dispute several details of the police account. While the district attorney’s review states Kenney jumped on the hood of the Thunderbird only to check the car after the shooting had stopped, the witnesses inside the house say they saw Joseph fire several rounds while standing on the hood.

The DA’s review reports that after the shooting, Kenney went into the Thunderbird looking for the weapon he and Joseph had seen in Romero’s hands:

“He found it wedged between the center console and the rear portion of the driver’s seat, near the floorboard of the passenger area immediately behind the driver’s seat. He briefly lifted the firearm with the intent to clear it of any live ammunition, but put it back in place when he realized he was not wearing gloves and that there was blood on it.”

The weapon turned out to be a pellet gun. Police also recovered baggies of pills later determined to be methamphetamine. Romero’s toxicology report, according the DA’s review, found he had a significant amount of methamphetamine in his system.

Oakland attorney Catherine Haley, who is representing Romero’s family and Joseph Johnson, called the shooting “absolutely execution-style.” She said it’s difficult to believe Romero would continue to reach for a fake gun while police fired at least 30 .40-caliber bullets into the car. And Kenney’s handling of evidence without gloves, in a shooting he had just participated in, raises significant questions about the integrity of the investigation on which both the district attorney and the U.S. attorney’s office based their reviews.

The district attorney’s review gives far more weight to statements from the involved officers, compared with those made by civilian witnesses inside the house. Romero’s sisters tried to accompany their brother’s body and the wounded Joseph to the hospital, but were told to get back inside their house.

Even though police knew they were there, no one interviewed them for more than two months after the shooting. That’s despite the fact both a Solano County district attorney’s investigator and Vallejo Police Lt. Sid De Jesus have said all witness statements should be taken as soon as possible after this kind of incident.

The district attorney’s review explains the credence given to the officers’ account this way :

“The statements of Mr. Romero’s sisters were all made almost ten weeks after this incident occurred. During that time, it would have been natural for them to reflect and discuss this incident. In contrast, the statements made by [Officer] Joseph and [Officer] Kenney were taken merely hours after the incident, when neither of them had a chance to speak to the other nor to any other involved person, as they were removed from the scene and sequestered almost immediately after the incident.”

De Jesus says that under orders from Vallejo Police Chief Joseph Kreins, the department will no longer comment on officer-involved shootings. Kreins issued the order after stories about fatal October 2012 shooting of Jeremiah Moore — also allegedly involving Officer Kenney. De Jesus did confirm that Kenney had been reassigned to the detective’s division, which he characterized as a “lateral movement,” not a promotion.

Oct. 21, 2012: The Jeremiah Moore Case

Jeremiah Moore (Courtesy of Lisa Moore)

Jeremiah Moore (Courtesy of Lisa Moore)

KQED reported in early April that the Solano County district attorney’s review of Jeremiah Moore’s killing on Oct. 21, 2012, by Vallejo police had been ongoing for a year and a half. Neither investigators with the office nor police detectives had interviewed a witness who lived across the street from the incident and whose account contradicted key points of the police department’s statement on the shooting.

Neighbors called 911 after a chaotic evening in which Moore and his roommate smashed windows in their cars and were overheard saying they were about to set their home on fire. Police responded and said in a press release that officers fatally wounded Moore after he threatened an officer with a rifle, placing it “directly against an officer’s stomach.”

But witness Jaime Alvarado said he saw Moore naked with nothing in his hands when he was shot by a Vallejo police officer standing about 8 to 10 feet away. Alvarado said he tried to go outside after the scene had calmed down to give a statement to police, but was told to go back inside. He was finally interviewed by district attorney’s investigators last month — a year and a half after the shooting and only after KQED had published his account.

On April 29, Oakland civil rights attorney Michael Haddad filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against Vallejo, the police department, Chief Kreins and Kenney, whom the lawsuit names as one of perhaps several police officers who may have opened fire. Haddad also said that Alvarado’s account suggests police invented their details of the shooting.

The Moore shooting also suggests police escalated a situation that could have been defused if officers had approached it as a mental health call, Haddad said. He added they should have known what they were approaching because people calling 911 described naked men, running, shouting and breaking windows outside their home in a generally quiet neighborhood.

“You don’t need much more information than that to know that somebody has some sort of mental disturbance,” Haddad said.

Haddad is also critical of California law and law-enforcement policies that make it difficult to get basic information about officer-involved shootings.

“We don’t imagine the government can just take someone’s life and not even explain why, and that’s the situation we’re living in in California,” Haddad said.

He added, “For them to be able to hide behind the law that protects police officers’ personnel information, to hide behind that law and not justify their taking of life is really abhorrent, and it’s a situation that must be changed.”

Excessive Force Claims

Kenney is also named in two other federal lawsuits alleging brutality in non-fatal interactions with suspects in 2012.

Tyrone Hicks alleged that a traffic stop on March 30 of that year quickly escalated when Kenney began choking Hicks’ passenger, Teresa Scott, just after he had been ordered out of his vehicle and handcuffed by another Vallejo officer. Hicks says he told Kenney he had no right to choke Scott.

Then, according to the lawsuit: “Defendant Kenney approached Plaintiff [Hicks], placed his hands around Plaintiff’s throat and began choking Plaintiff where Plaintiff could not breathe. … The choking occurred approximately for 15-20 seconds and Plaintiff was placed in a patrol car.” The second officer involved in the incident is accused of failing to intercede to stop the alleged choking.

The suit says Hicks was booked for possession of cocaine for sale, but the charges were dismissed.

Spawned from a separate incident, Ivan Carter’s lawsuit against Vallejo says he had been working with his son on Aug. 17, 2012, at a property on Indiana Street. The suit alleges that Vallejo police officers Kenney and Thompson were chasing a separate group of youths suspected of trespassing, and the officers apparently mistook Carter’s son for one in the group they had been chasing, confronting him at a cousin’s home at 640 Indiana St.

The officers allegedly shot the unnamed minor with a Taser, then “began beating, choking, and pepper spraying” him, the suit says.

Hicks and others claiming to be injured by Vallejo police say they are part of a group of residents in the city who have been subjected to a “long-standing practice, policy or custom of allowing Vallejo police officers to use excessive force.” The group is organized by Frederick Cooley, who recently settled his lawsuit against the city originating from a confrontation with Officers Kenney and Eric Jensen in late 2011. A Vallejo police department union newsletter says Cooley was arrested for driving a stolen car.

Once Cooley was in handcuffs, “Sean Kenney lifted me up to my feet and Jensen took his flashlight and hit me on top of my head,” Cooley said. “Then he (Jensen) got on top of me and started beating me with the flashlight and ended up breaking my hand.”

Then, Cooley said, Kenney picked him up and slammed his face into the patrol car, lacerating his chin, and closed the patrol car door on his ankles after throwing him in the back seat. When the officers got to the emergency room, Jensen told medical workers that Cooley had been injured in a car crash, according to Cooley. Cooley did crash into two parked cars, according to the police union blotter, but Cooley said that’s not how he was injured.

After he was released from the hospital, Cooley ended up in the medical facilities of Solano County Jail. “There I met almost 40 different individuals who had been housed there because of injuries they received from Vallejo PD,” he said. “So that’s what started it all. Most of us knew each other, but if we didn’t, we had something in common. Most everybody in the medical area was beat up by the police, dog bites, Tasers, beat with a baton, broken legs, ankles.”

Cooley won a legal fight compelling the Vallejo Police Department to disclose 10 years of internal affairs investigations, including any instances in which Kenney or Jensen were accused of excessive force, dishonesty or falsification of evidence. Rather than disclose the information, Vallejo settled Cooley’s case in December 2013 for $35,000, Cooley said.

“I’m not a bad person — I have made mistakes in the past, but right now, I think we can make this a better place to live,” said Cooley, who says he’s lived Vallejo for 30 years. “This is not no new thing. They’ve been doing this for a long time, but it’s come to a head, where they’re killing unarmed individuals.”

The U.S. Attorney for California’s Eastern District confirmed the office had reviewed the Mario Romero shooting, and said “the facts did not present a prosecutable criminal offense for violation of federal civil rights laws.” She said the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice reached a similar conclusion.

She directed further questions to the U.S. Department of Justice about when the federal government would get involved in a police department’s use of force.

The Justice Department did not respond to phone calls and emails requesting an explanation of how it decides to investigate cities like Albuquerque, where they found a “pattern or practice of excessive force that violates the Constitution and federal law.”

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