San Francisco (CNN)The police chief in the Northern California city of Vallejo announced an inquiry into his department earlier in the week, saying he is "deeply disturbed" after a news report alleged that some officers in the department had bent their police badges to silently indicate they had shot and killed someone while on duty.
Police chief in California launches inquiry into alleged badge bending rite to indicate fatal shootings
The explosive allegations were first reported by Open Vallejo, which spoke to John Whitney, a former Vallejo police captain. Whitney, according to the report, said he was fired from his position after calling attention to unethical conduct, including the badge bending.
Whitney, the report added, said he learned of the secret practice last year and reported it up the chain of command. The news site reported that at least 14 of the 51 current and former Vallejo officers involved in shootings since 2000 had their badges bent by a colleague shortly after a fatal shooting, citing sources familiar with the practice.
At least one officer named in the Open Vallejo report denied taking part in such a practice. "My badge has never been bent," he told the paper. "That's a lie."
In a statement released Wednesday, Vallejo Police Chief Shawny Williams said the new information had prompted the inquiry and that it would help him "to understand the culture of the department in a greater way and to take corrective action."
"If there is credible evidence found, I will expand the inquiry into an official investigation," Williams said in the statement.
Shortly after Open Vallejo published its story, Lt. Michael Nichelini, the Vallejo police union president, called the story "beyond inflammatory" 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.
Whitney, a 19-year veteran of the department, learned of the secret ritual in February 2019 following the shooting of a local rapper in the drive-thru of a fast food restaurant, according to his lawyer, Alison Berry Wilkinson.
"To take pride in that (shootings) is absolutely condemnable in my view," Wilkinson told CNN. "It's highly unethical and it doesn't fit the code of ethics for policing. And certainly, it was something he felt he needed to be ended."
Citing confidentiality, Wilkinson said she couldn't release more details. But she said Whitney raised his concern with then-Police Chief Andrew Bidou, who instructed him to address the issue at a command staff meeting.
"During that meeting, Captain Whitney wanted all supervisors to inspect their subordinates' uniforms and collect badges," Wilkinson said.
She confirmed other details of the Open Vallejo story, including that 10 suspicious badges were eventually put in a cardboard box and brought to the chief's office.
"When the chief saw how many there were that needed to be repaired, he was concerned it would raise suspicion with the city finance department, and so he then ordered the badges be returned to the officers with an instruction that the officers fix them," Wilkinson said her client told her.
Bidou has not responded to CNN requests for comment.
In August 2019, Whitney was fired from his job after an investigation into allegations he improperly handled information, according to the Open Vallejo report. Wilkinson said the official reason had to do with Whitney removing personal information from his department-issued phone.
But according to a claim filed by Wilkinson against the city, it was retaliation against Whitney "for expressing his professional opinions on a variety of misconduct issues."
While the claim, which seeks back pay and attorney fees, doesn't specifically mention badge bending, Wilkinson says it will be detailed in a wrongful termination lawsuit Whitney plans to file.
Whitney appears to have ally in Vallejo Mayor Bob Sampayan. In a recommendation letter attached to the claim, Sampayan writes: "Frankly, I believe that because John spoke out about a negative culture on the Vallejo Police Department, his reputation was soiled by those that did not want any 'dirty laundry' aired."
Sampayan was not available for comment Thursday, but the city provided a statement saying Assistant City Manager Anne Cardwell had spoken with City Manager Greg Nyhoff, who told her, "The Mayor had advised me last year about these disturbing allegations of this practice that may have occurred in prior years at the Police Department. I immediately consulted with former Police Chief Bidou about these claims, and Chief Bidou indicated to me that this claim of 'badge bending' had been previously investigated and the claim had not been substantiated. The City takes all claims or credible information regarding potential misconduct seriously. Chief Williams is currently following up on the past allegations taking all investigatory measures, and he will take the appropriate and necessary actions based on the information provided."
The Vallejo Police Department is no stranger to controversy.
California Attorney General Xavier Becerra announced last month that his office would review the department's policies and practices amid a string of shootings by officers.
A 2019 investigation by NBC Bay Area found that per capita the Vallejo Police Department had the highest number of people shot by police officers in Northern California, and the third highest number in the state.
The Becerra review appears to have been prompted in part by the June 2 shooting death of 22-year-old Sean Monterrosa in Vallejo. Police shot the Latino man in a Walgreens parking lot after they arrived to investigate reports of looting following protests.
The officer who fired the fatal round mistook a hammer for a gun in Monterossa's sweatshirt pocket, police said in a press release. What's more, investigators looking into the case, discovered that key evidence -- the bullet-riddled windshield of the police car the officer shot through -- was destroyed.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has called on the FBI to investigate the killing.