When an officer shoots and kills someone, whether on-duty or off, there is usually an investigation into the shooting to determine whether there was any wrongdoing on the part of the officer involved.
History has shown us that police officers are rarely held accountable for their actions when it comes to the use of deadly force. Stephon Clark, Tamir Rice, Terence Crutcher, Phildando Castile, Alton Sterling, Eric Garner, Walter Scott, and Keith Lamont Scott were all killed by police officers, but how many of those cases saw justice?
When a police department is plagued with deadly officer-involved shootings—shootings in which the victims are often unarmed and the officers involved go unpunished—can that department be trusted to rightly handle the investigation of an off-duty police officer from another town who shot and killed a man in their jurisdiction?
On Nov. 10, 2019, 38-year-old Eric Reason and off-duty Richmond Police Sgt. Virgil Thomas both went after the same parking spot in a Vallejo strip mall. After Thomas got the spot, the two men—both of whom are black—exchanged words. Surveillance video released by the city of Vallejo shows the two men getting in each other’s faces before Reason walks back to his minivan and retrieves a gun from under the hood. He walks back toward Thomas, and more words are exchanged. Police say Reason brandished the gun at Thomas, but that is not clear on the video.
What is clear is that after exchanging a few more words, Reason turns and begins to walk back to his car. As he does, Thomas pulls out his own gun and begins firing at Reason as he walks away. Reason attempts to run away, and Thomas follows him, continuing to fire his weapon.
Melissa Nold, an attorney representing Reason’s mother, told NBC News that Reason was shot in the back of the head and died at the scene.
“Those videos show a cold-blooded murder,” she said.
Justin Buffington, the attorney representing Thomas, told NBC that his client was only protecting himself against Reason, who had pulled a gun on him, and he had “no other choice” but to shoot Reason.
Nold disputes that, saying that without the video being enhanced, it is hard to tell what Reason had in his hand, and there is no indication that he actually pointed a gun at Thomas—something Vallejo Police have previously said happened.
But Nold believes that “history prevents us from assuming the police narrative is truthful.”
Ultimately, according to NBC, Thomas was not arrested, but he was placed on administrative leave.
His attorney told NBC on Wednesday: “Thomas attempted to deescalate the situation but ultimately had no other choice but to draw his own firearm. Once Reason realized that he had attempted to attack someone capable of protecting himself, he ran through the parking lot, still armed with his pistol, in what reasonably appeared to be an effort to obtain a position of tactical advantage from which to shoot at Sgt. Thomas.”
The shooting is now under investigation by the city of Vallejo and the Solano County District Attorney’s Office.
According to SFist, Vallejo Police released a statement after their preliminary investigation, saying “Sgt. Thomas believed that Reason still posed an immediate threat to the safety of Sgt. Thomas, his wife, who was a passenger in the vehicle, and other patrons of the shopping complex.”
Did he pose a bigger threat than a person actually firing a pistol in the crowded parking lot?
Nold believes Vallejo Police are “providing a criminal defense narrative instead of distributing unbiased facts.”
“This lack of transparency is not surprising based on Vallejo PD’s long history of providing misinformation surrounding officer-involved shootings,” she said.
Her incredulity is not without merit.
As the Appeal reported in December, the police department in Vallejo has killed people with “near impunity” over the last 10 years. In fact:
Since 2010, no Vallejo officer has been disciplined for using deadly force, despite multiple shootings of unarmed people—including a man holding a can of beer. And active police union leaders have been involved in the shooting investigations.
Over the past 10 years, police in Vallejo, California—a city of about 120,000 people northeast of San Francisco—shot 31 people, 17 of them fatally. A review of newly released police investigative files by The Appeal shows that officers there are rarely disciplined for using deadly force, even when the people they shoot are unarmed.
From 2010 through 2018, only three officers’ firearms tactics were criticized by supervisors. One of the officers was criticized for not using a method, taught by the department, that involves firing more shots at a murder suspect. Another shot at a suspect while police and passing motorists were in his line of fire. The third shot a rifle over the heads of other officers to kill an armed man. None of the officers were disciplined.
The Appeal notes that there was an increase in police shootings in Vallejo after one of their officers was killed in the line of duty in November 2011:
The records, thousands of pages altogether, also provide a detailed look into a particularly violent period in the police department’s history—the two years immediately following the murder of a police officer.
On Nov. 17, 2011, Officer James Capoot was shot and killed by a bank robbery suspect. The two years before Capoot was killed, the Vallejo police were involved in only two fatal shootings, and three non-fatal shootings. The two years after Capoot’s murder, police increasingly used deadly force. Officers shot and killed nine people and injured six others in shootings. When interviewed by investigators, officers sometimes referred to Capoot’s murder, and their fear of also being killed, to justify using deadly force.
In San Francisco, a city with seven times the population of Vallejo, officers shot and killed three people over the same two-year period, and were involved in another 11 non-fatal shootings.
Rather than criticize unnecessary uses of lethal force, officers were praised for using what is described as “the zipper drill” method of shooting—in which officers fire “numerous rounds into an adversary, starting low in the target’s body and “zipping” the barrel of the gun up toward the person’s head while continuously shooting.”
Prior to using this tactic, officers were trained to “fire two to three rounds at a person’s center mass and then pause to re-evaluate the situation before shooting again, if necessary.”
Roger Clark, a former Los Angeles County sheriff’s lieutenant who consults on police use of force, believes the so-called “zipper drill” method of firearms training is a “cockamamie” idea.
“This makes no sense logically and tactically,” Clark told the Appeal. “It will only result in unnecessary injury and death because you’re talking about pulling the trigger way too many times.”
Again, as the Appeal notes, one thing that may explain why the officers involved in these questionable shootings have not been disciplined is the fact that the officers tasked with investigating said shootings and the officers involved have been leaders of the police officer’s union or members of the union’s elected board.
Additionally, according to the Appeal, “The police department’s relatively small size also means that some officers who are responsible for investigating potential criminal or policy violations have themselves used deadly force in previous incidents, alongside some of the same officers they are later assigned to investigate.”
Conflict of interest much?
Given what is at stake with the shooting of Eric Reason and the way the Vallejo Police Department has handled shooting investigations involving their own officers, how can the public trust that they will handle this shooting investigation correctly?
Will Sgt. Thomas be praised for his shooting method as opposed to disciplined for killing a man who was obviously running away from him?
Will Eric Reason be another name and hashtag added to a long list of names and hashtags of black men who have been killed by police with impunity?
Will we ever be able to trust any police department in this country for that matter?
This all remains to be seen.