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Weeks after the latest fatal officer-involved shooting in a series of police shootings in Vallejo this year, Oakland-based civil rights attorney John Burris is requesting an independent investigation into the Vallejo Police Department. Speaking at a news conference at the Solano County District Attorney’s Office this afternoon, Burris said his office is requesting the investigation on behalf of Joseph Johnson, 21, and other victims of officer-involved shootings in Vallejo this year. “There have been seven (officer-involved) shootings over the past year and a half — that is a huge number for a city this size,” Burris said.
The attorney said he supports Vallejo Mayor Osby Davis’s bid to seek City Council approval of a request for an investigation into Vallejo Police Department practices by the state Attorney General’s Office. The state probe would be separate from the Solano County District Attorney’s Office’s investigation. “The mayor’s efforts are good, but it’s not enough,” he said. Burris said he plans to request an investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice into Vallejo police’s use of deadly force. He said he also plans to file a federal civil rights lawsuit against the Police Department’s use of deadly force, especially in relation to black male suspects. Burris said the Police Department’s recent record of officer-involved shootings far surpasses that of larger cities.
Since the beginning of 2012, Vallejo police have shot and killed three men and a teenager — Marshall Tobin, 44, Anton Barrett Sr., 42, Peter Mestler, 53, Jared Huey, 17, and 23-year-old Mario Romero. Two others, including Johnson, were badly wounded in officer-involved shootings. In the latest shooting, on Sept. 2, Vallejo police officers shot and killed Romero after he allegedly reached for what turned out to be a pellet gun, according to police. Police said Romero was on felony probation for carrying a concealed weapon when he was killed. The shooting occurred around 4:30 a.m. after two officers on patrol spotted the 23-year-old and his passenger, Johnson, sitting in a parked car. According to police, Romero did not comply with officer commands to show his hands and instead reached toward his car’s center console.
Police said the officers feared for their safety. But Burris said police’s version of the events that led to the shooting of Romero and Johnson is questionable. “No African-American male being pursued by police officers in this country would reach in their waistband or in their back pocket,” he said. “These lies need to be uncovered.” Vallejo police Sgt. Jeff Bassett, however, called Burris’s request for a federal investigation “ludicrous” and said the attorney “does not have all the facts” about the Sept. 2 shooting. Nonetheless, the sergeant said the department would welcome an additional investigation into their use of deadly force and believes investigators’ findings will align with the department’s own assessment of this year’s officer-involved shootings.
Bassett also said Burris’s allegations of racial discrimination are unfounded. Of the seven people who were killed or wounded in
officer-involved shootings this year, for example, three where white, he said. The sergeant said that the Police Department has responded to more than 300 reports of gunfire since the beginning of the year and has taken 150 guns off of the street. “It stands to reason that officers are going to encounter guns on the street,” he said. “We’re concerned about why someone might choose to go to his waistband when officers are obviously approaching him.” But several community members at today’s news conference voiced their distrust in the Police Department and said they would continue to push for answers about the officer-involved shootings until the truth comes out.
A few-dozen community members today flanked Burris, many holding signs with messages such as “Justice for Mario” and “Stop Vallejo Police From Murdering Our Friends and Family.” Two people held a banner with a photo of Romero and his 3-year-old daughter. Romero’s mother, Cindy Mitchell, and his siblings stood next to Burris this afternoon. “I just hope that justice is done for Mario so this type of act doesn’t happen to any other young men,” Mitchell said. “I don’t want my son’s death to go in vain.”
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