Demian Bulwa, 07/07/12
In a video posted on Facebook, Vallejo police officers corner a 17-year-old suspect outside a home after he allegedly robbed a convenience store at gunpoint and crashed the getaway car.
Officers are seen approaching a fence, shouting is heard, and then the officers fire a barrage of at least 15 rounds over the fence. The boy, Jared Huey, is never seen.
The June 30 incident was the third of four fatal shootings by Vallejo police in the past six weeks. Police say two of the four suspects – including Huey – brandished guns and that a third had a BB gun, but that the fourth was holding what turned out to be a metal wallet.
The shootings have raised questions about whether brazen and well-armed suspects are to blame, or overly aggressive officers who need better training – or whether it’s a mere statistical blip.
Vallejo saw a 10 percent jump in violent crime last year as the city emerged from bankruptcy. The police force has been cut to 93 officers, down from a high of 158 in 2005. And in November, Officer James Capoot was shot and killed while chasing a suspected bank robber.
Police officials, watchdogs and experts on the use of force agree that the number of shootings in Vallejo is alarming. Officers in Oakland and San Francisco have each killed one person this year, and Vallejo officers had killed two people in the three years before the recent spike.
But just as the Facebook video provides an incomplete picture of Huey’s killing, the rise in shootings alone does not reveal what is going on in Vallejo, experts said.
They said the cases demand investigation, not only to find out if the shootings were justified but to see whether they shared common traits, with a goal of avoiding more such killings.
“Nobody wants to shoot anybody,” said former San Francisco Police Chief Tony Ribera. “A lot of officers’ reactions are based on their training, and you have to make sure the training is excellent.”
Civil rights attorney John Burris agreed that not enough is known yet about the shootings. But he said Vallejo’s police force was one of the Bay Area’s most aggressive, and that officers may be resorting to deadly force more quickly as a result of Capoot’s killing.
Burris represents the family of Anton Barrett Sr., 41, who was killed by Vallejo police May 28. Police say Barrett drove away from officers who tried to pull his car over, and that during a subsequent foot chase he pulled what turned out to be a metal wallet from his waistband.
“He made a move with his hands,” Burris said, “and any move with your hands can be interpreted by an officer in a panicked state to be a threat. … I think it’s a matter of police officers having a state of mind where they don’t presume everyone has a gun.”
But Geoffrey Alpert, a criminology professor at the University of South Carolina who specializes in police use of force, said he was struck by reports that the other three suspects in Vallejo had brandished guns, whether real or not.
‘I would be on edge’
“What are people doing?” Alpert asked. “I think it’s an indictment of the public and the violence they’re showing.”
He added, “If I was an officer in that city, I would be on edge because people have been pulling weapons on officers. It becomes now an issue for the public – if you pull a gun on an officer, you’re going to get shot.”
Although saying he was hesitant to connect the four shootings, Mat Mustard, president of the Vallejo police officers union, said he and his colleagues were seeing more brazen criminals carrying guns.
“There is a criminal element in the city that has probably taken advantage of the lack of officers on the streets,” Mustard said.
He said some minor criminals had told him they were “concerned that the cops aren’t there to take care of the people that are even worse than them. They’ve gotten to the point where they’re arming themselves.”
Harry Stern, an attorney whose firm represents officers in three of the four fatal shootings, said Vallejo’s police-force reduction has changed the way officers go about their jobs.
“What happens is that rather than having the luxury of doing proactive patrols to prevent crime, they’re reacting to dangerous crimes in progress, and doing so with too few cops,” Stern said.
7 officers involved
A Vallejo police spokesman did not return telephone and e-mail messages, but told the Vallejo Times-Herald that seven officers had been involved in five shootings – one of them nonfatal – since May 25. The most recent was Wednesday, when a domestic violence suspect, 44-year-old Marshall Tobin, was killed when he allegedly reached for a gun as officers confronted him in a supermarket parking lot.
None of the names of the officers involved in the shootings has been released. The cases are being investigated by the Police Department and the Solano County district attorney.