How California cops kept this man’s in-custody death a secret for years

Police cars in Vallejo, California in May 2008 (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
Police cars in Vallejo, California in May 2008 (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

The death of a Latino and indigenous man in police custody in circumstances similar to George Floyd was kept secret by California authorities for nearly a decade, an investigation has revealed.

Darryl Dean Mefferd, 49, died in 2016 after being detained by the Vallejo Police Department (VPD) for unclear reasons and allegedly restrained face down on the ground, according to local news outlet Open Vallejo.

But because his death was ruled accidental by the county coroner – who is also a serving police sergeant – officials never publicly announced it and allegedly fought in court to keep it secret.

The alleged use of 'prone restraint' echoes the May 2020 murder of George Floyd, who was killed by a police officer kneeling on his back for nearly ten minutes while attempting to arrest him on suspicion of using a counterfeit $20 bill.

An inside source told Open Vallejo that body camera footage from the night of the incident showed a Vallejo police officer sitting "with his whole body weight" on Mefferd's back for about the same duration.

It comes after repeated law enforcement scandals in the San Francisco Bay Area city, which had one of the highest rates of police shootings of any American city between 2010 and 2020, paying out so much money in legal settlements and damages that it was forced to withdraw from a statewide municipal insurance scheme.

VPD officers have been accused of routinely slow-rolling internal investigations, botching a major investigation into a woman's kidnapping, and adopting secret honor symbols to glorify officers who killed citizens. Last year a judge ruled that senior officials had illegally destroyed evidence relating to multiple police shootings.

According to Open Vallejo, Mefferd was detained on the night of December 7, 2016, after being treated at a local hospital for alcohol withdrawal.

Although medics found him ineligible to be detained on the grounds of mental health and never called the police on him, he was intercepted by an officer responding to an unrelated incident and taken to a crisis center in nearby Fairfield.

What happened next is unclear. Initial calls for help from the scene say there was an altercation, and some say Mefferd was "combative" or "uncooperative". The inside source, by contrast, said there was no fight and that the officer had restrained Mefferd in a prone position.

Prone restraint is a highly controversial technique that is illegal in many school districts, with several studies finding that it can cause asphyxia, leading to a fatal condition known as prone restraint cardiac arrest (PRCA).

Dr Victor Weedn, an expert on PRCA, said he believed that PRCA explains not only Mefferd's death but most non-shooting deaths of people in police custody.

But the Solano County coroner's report – or rather, the sheriff-coroner's report, since those positions are often merged in California – did not mention any restraint or physical confrontation, and nor did Mefferd's autopsy report.

Open Vallejo further alleged that no body camera footage or surveillance footage from the incident has ever been released and that the city of Vallejo, the Solano County District Attorney's Office, and the Fairfield Police Department are still refusing to release some records.

The Solano County Sheriff's Office initially released only the coroner's report and dispatch records, before releasing an additional 43 pages of records on Friday.

In response to the investigation, a spokesperson for the DA's office emphatically denied any suggestion that it was involved in a "cover-up" of Meffort's death, claiming that it had never received any public record requests from Open Vallejo.

"After an extensive search, we were able to locate reports authored by formerly employed DA Investigators Dillon, Campbell, Hernandez, and Wilcox... [who] assisted the involved law enforcement agencies with the criminal investigation of this incident," the spokesperson said.

"If there is new and different credible evidence regarding the manner or cause of Mr Mefferd’s death, our office will re-open the investigation into this matter."

A spokesperson for the Fairfield Police Department said that its involvement was limited "only to the life-saving measures employed by our officers upon arriving at the scene".

She added: "Our department has absolutely nothing to hide. Anyone wishing to obtain our records regarding this case, scant though they are, has only to do so through [our] web portal."

The VPD, the city of Vallejo, and the Solano County Sheriff-Coroner's Office did not immediately respond to requests for comment.