In the early morning hours of September 2, 2012, twenty-three-year old Mario Romero and his sister’s boyfriend, Joseph Johnson, pulled up to his family’s home in Vallejo, California—a city of about 120,000 people thirty miles north of Oakland. At around the same time, Vallejo officers Sean Kenney and Dustin Joseph drove by. Kenney reportedly thought Romero’s white Thunderbird looked similar to a car that had recently been involved in a drive-by shooting.
Romero and Johnson had nothing to do with the shooting. But the officers stopped near Romero’s car, shined a spotlight on the men, and yelled at them to put their hands up. The officers claimed that Romero got out of the car and reached into his waistband for a gun. But Romero’s family, watching from their living room window, saw the officers open fire into the Thunderbird as the men sat in their car, hands raised.
Officer Kenney discharged his weapon so many times that he needed to reload; at one point he climbed onto the hood of the Thunderbird and shot repeatedly at the men through its front windshield. Johnson was shot but survived. Romero died at the scene, with thirty gunshot wounds to his head, neck, and torso.
Romero was one of six people killed by Vallejo police officers in 2012, and one of three men Officer Sean Kenney killed over a five-month period—all three apparently had their hands up in surrender when they were shot. Officer Kenney may sound like a particularly bad apple, but in the Vallejo Police Department he fit right in. Officer Kenney was part of a group known locally as the Fatal 14—fourteen officers out of the approximately 100 on the force who had been involved in more than one fatal shooting. The names of these fourteen officers can be found in virtually every use-of-force report, lawsuit, or misconduct allegation against Vallejo police between 2010 and 2020. But, during that decade, none of the Fatal 14 were criminally charged, disciplined, or fired. Several, including Kenney, were promoted. In fact, the Fatal 14 celebrated shootings at bars and backyard barbecues by bending the tips of their badges and called their modified star a “Badge of Honor.” Although Vallejo officials initially denied that officers bent their badges after shootings, several former Vallejo officers have now confirmed the existence of that ritual and at least seven Vallejo officers’ badges have been seen with bent tips—including Kenney’s. In 2019, Captain John Whitney, a twenty-year veteran of the department, raised concerns about the badge bending and pushed for an investigation. Instead, Captain Whitney was fired.
Between 2010 and 2020, scores of lawsuits have been filed against Vallejo officers at the city. Although several tell of shootings by police officers, may more reveal gratuitous force sued during routine stops and arrests—of officers punching and kicking people in the head; slamming people into the concrete and against patrol car doors; and tasing people when they posed little or no threat. But, as of yet, the City of Vallejo has escaped legal responsibility for the violence inflicted by its officers. As Chapter 6 of SHIELDED shows, the Supreme Court’s decisions limiting municipal liability are a key reason why.