A police car sits in front of a roll-up metal door next to a "police vehicles only" sign in late afternoon light. The door is part of a large brick building. A security camera can be seen near the door.
A police car blocks the entrance to the Vallejo Police Department’s evidence section on Feb. 6, 2023, one day after Open Vallejo reported that senior officials ordered the purge of evidence in multiple police shootings in 2021. Credit: Geoffrey King / Open Vallejo

Open Vallejo has cautioned newly-hired lawyers for the city of Vallejo that officials should refrain from destroying any police records following a report that senior city employees authorized a purge of evidence in multiple police shootings in 2021.

In a letter sent Thursday to the city’s outside legal counsel, Open Vallejo’s attorney Thomas R. Burke said the city “should not destroy or alter any further records” and requested that officials “not assert the attorney-client privilege to withhold information about the factual circumstances under which the records were destroyed by employees of the City.”

“As Officers of the Court, your firms are uniquely in a position to provide these assurances,” Burke wrote.

Last week, Open Vallejo reported that the city selected two law firms to assist an investigation into the destruction of evidence; Boucher Law PC will serve as the city’s legal advisor, while Van Dermyden Makus will conduct the probe. At the time that story was published, the contract with Van Dermyden Makus was “still in draft form and has not yet been finalized or executed by either of the parties,” according to a public records request filed by Open Vallejo. 

One day later, the Vallejo city manager’s office submitted a proposed $95,000 contract for the Van Dermyden Makus firm, which is to be backdated to Feb. 13, records obtained by Open Vallejo show. 

The same day, the city signed a $20,854.94 contract for “Master Consultant and Professional Services Agreement” with Records Control Services, a Bay Area-based corporation that offers consulting on record retention and management solutions.

A spokesperson for the city of Vallejo did not immediately respond to requests for comment about the two contracts. 

Vallejo City Attorney Veronica Nebb has recused her office from the investigation into the destruction of records after Open Vallejo revealed that Assistant City Attorney Katelyn Knight authorized the purge in five police shootings, this newsroom reported on Wednesday. The city issued a press release about the investigation following the publication of Open Vallejo’s article.

The announcement comes after months of apparent inaction from city officials, and despite calls for an investigation by Vallejo Mayor Robert McConnell and members of the public. 

But McConnell has sent mixed messages about the public’s need to access years-old records of police shootings such as the ones affected by the 2021 purge. 

“If it’s just a re-rehashing of terrible, terrible things that occurred in what is now becoming the distant past, I don’t— I don’t know what the benefit is,” McConnell said in a Feb. 4 interview. 

In its letter, Open Vallejo reminded the city’s attorneys that the newsroom has asked the judge overseeing its public records lawsuit, Stephen Gizzi, to consider a criminal referral for the intentional destruction of records.

On Monday, Judge Gizzi postponed a scheduled hearing on the basis that he needed more time to “fully address the issues raised” by Open Vallejo following the discovery of the evidence purge. 

“Accordingly, this matter is continued until March 15, 2023, at which time a special Hearing of up to two hours will be held in Department 3 at 1:30 p.m,” Gizzi wrote. 

“All appearing counsel must be personally present.”

The destruction of evidence first came to light during the May 5, 2022 deposition of Joni Brown, the city’s then-public records coordinator, as part of an ongoing public records lawsuit filed by this newsroom in September 2021. Days later, Open Vallejo notified the California Department of Justice of the potential crime and filed a public records request for more information. Details of the purge became public last September, when the city published evidence destruction logs and other records responsive to Open Vallejo’s request.

Read Open Vallejo’s letter to the city here.

Geoffrey King is the executive editor of Open Vallejo. Prior to founding Open Vallejo, Geoffrey worked as an attorney and journalist focused on free expression, open government, press freedom and privacy. He is a proud native of Vallejo, California.