A former police captain who alleges in a lawsuit that he was fired for whistleblowing on his colleagues and exposing corruption within the Vallejo Police Department will receive nearly $1 million in a settlement with the city.
John Whitney and his attorney, Jayme Walker, agreed to the settlement last week, in which the city will be required to pay Whitney $900,000 as well as all costs, liens and attorney fees.
“I feel vindicated by the settlement agreement because of the amount,” Whitney told The Times in an interview Monday. “You don’t settle for nearly $1 million if you did everything correct.”
Whitney alleges in a lawsuit filed against the city and his former employers in 2020 that he was fired after he told Vallejo City Manager Greg Nyhoff, Mayor Bob Sampayan and then-City Atty. Claudia Quintana that members of the Police Department were bending the corners of their badges to commemorate every time an officer killed a civilian.
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The Times reached out to the city of Vallejo, the offices of the city attorney, the city manager, the mayor, former Police Chief Andrew Bidou and the Vallejo Police Department on Monday. They didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.
Monica Martinez, a spokesperson for the Solano County district attorney’s office, confirmed that an independent third-party investigation into “badge bending” in the department “did not give rise to any criminal liability.”
Whitney told The Times that he first became aware of badge bending within the department in late 2014 or early 2015 from another officer. He then learned about it a second time in February 2019 when an officer was placed on administrative leave and had to turn in his badge. When Whitney asked him why two edges were bent, the officer said it represented the two people he had killed in the line of duty.
Whitney, who had worked for the Vallejo Police Department since 2000 and was promoted to the rank of captain in 2015, also reported what he maintained were other unlawful practices and mismanagement under the tenure of former Chief Bidou, who is also named in the lawsuit. Whitney reported that a sergeant used force on a minor and filed a false use-of-force report saying that the child had made terrorist threats.
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Whitney alleged that he asked Bidou to conduct an internal investigation into badge bending within the department, but Bidou refused. Whitney then ordered all supervisors to collect any bent badges, and about 10 were found. Bidou allegedly ordered the badges returned to the officers and told them to fix them. Whitney said he was concerned about destruction of evidence and notified Nyhoff, Sampayan and Quintana.
Whitney told The Times that it’s frowned upon in law enforcement to report misconduct about other officers because that means “crossing the thin blue line.” There’s also fear of retaliation by both superiors and colleagues.
“Too many things were going on, and there was no accountability,” he said. “I was surprised and shocked that City Manager Nyhoff was involved in basically a conspiracy to conduct an internal affairs investigation and have me terminated. The person I went to thinking this is who can solve these problems was also involved in covering up the wrongdoing by the Police Department.”
Whitney alleges that, in August 2019, Bidou and Nyhoff retaliated against him for reporting the badge bending and other misconduct and made him the subject of a “sham investigation” in which he was fired for deleting personal content from his department-issued cellphone, a practice that he said isn’t prohibited by the Police Department.
Walker said she hoped the settlement would push more officers to come forward about misconduct within their departments.
“I hope that there is going to be some real change in Vallejo, and one of the significant things keeping them in line is the press has been intensely scrutinizing their conduct,” Walker told The Times. “That’s how we can shine a light on this and protect whistleblowers who should’ve been commemorated as a hero and, instead, were illegally terminated.”
Whitney, who now works for the El Cerrito Police Department, said there’s a stigma from being fired from law enforcement, especially as a high-ranking captain. He said it was difficult for him to find another job, and once he started applying, the agencies told him they had been contacted about his past. The chief of the El Cerrito Police Department even told him that he had been asked why he hired Whitney.
“There was a lot of concern and sleepless nights that just went on for years,” Whitney said. “With all of my education, experience and training, I was ready for the next step. Instead, I started over as a line-level patrol officer at a new agency. They took everything away from me that I was working toward in my career.”
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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.