VALLEJO – Lt. Steve Darden is one of the Vallejo Police Department’s longest serving and most decorated officers, having served on the force longer than any other officer but one. Earlier this year, he was picked to lead one of the department’s new geographical service areas and commands the patrol division in North Vallejo. In his 26 years in the department, he has been promoted three times and earned several good conduct medals.
“He has more stuff in the commendations folder than anyone else. Period,” then-Capt. Lee Horton wrote in an email praising Darden’s performance as a sergeant in 2014. Since then, Darden has received medals of valor and merit and was promoted to lieutenant in 2019.
But Darden’s power and prestige comes despite a reputation for instability and overly aggressive behavior, both inside and outside the department, according to records reviewed by the Vallejo Sun. Darden has faced a string of excessive force complaints as well as internal complaints that allege he’s harassed, berated and bullied colleagues and subordinates and once wrote rap lyrics attacking a city council member.
The records, including an internal investigation and emails between superiors in the department obtained by the Vallejo Sun, show that department leadership disregarded or dismissed complaints about Darden’s behavior, indicative of a department where little has been done to hold officers accountable, even as they’ve shot 56 people over the last 20 years, killing 30. Many of those officers — dubbed the “Fatal 14” by local activists — would kill several people and engage in a secret ritual of bending the tips of their star-shaped badges to consecrate the shootings.
One previously undisclosed complaint from 2017 spurred outside investigators to interview a dozen Vallejo police employees, most of whom reported having some negative interaction with Darden and being aware of his reputation for belligerence. Yelling at subordinates “is Darden's MO and everyone in the department knows it,” one officer told investigators.
Some officers said that they avoided Darden and believed he drove other officers out of the department. A dispatcher said she would leave if Darden received another promotion. A lieutenant alleged that Darden fabricated seeing a suspect during a burglary call, leading to an hours-long standoff with a person that didn’t exist.
But Horton — who retired last year — allegedly covered for Darden’s poor behavior and protected him, according to some Vallejo police employees.
On the streets, Darden has a reputation for brutality and as an officer to avoid. He has fired his gun a documented four times during his career with Vallejo police — a large number for any officer, as a 2016 Pew Research Center survey found that only 27% of police officers nationwide have ever fired their gun in the line of duty.
Darden has been named in several civil rights lawsuits, including one that recently led to a substantial settlement alleging that he and other officers illegally entered a man’s bedroom and beat him for no reason. He was also caught on camera striking a victim of a robbery.
Darden’s notoriety has even led to his inclusion in rap lyrics, as Nef the Pharaoh rapped in his 2019 song “South Vallejo,” “VPD keep fuckin' with me, if Darden come, we dartin', son.”
Darden and the Vallejo Police Department did not respond to multiple requests for an interview or comment for this report.
Darden: “I was this ‘rappin’ cop”
Darden served in the U.S. Marine Corps from 1987-1991, according to his department biography. He started his policing career with the California State University San Francisco Police Department in 1991 but left after only a year, according to state records. He joined the East Palo Alto Police Department in 1994 and then the Vallejo Police Department in 1996.
In 2007, Darden released his first album as a rapper, “It’s Ruff Out Here,” with songs describing his life as a Vallejo police officer, such as one named for Solano County’s area code, ”707.”
“I’m at my locker getting suited up; talkin’ to my squad just choppin it up,” Darden rapped. “Deep inside I start to feel; as if it’s my last day, man, the danger’s real.”
“Load the shotgun and test the light bar; I patrol on the street all day where you are,” Darden continues.
A feature about the album in the Vallejo Times-Herald reported that Darden would play his music while transporting arrestees, who he said would sometimes shed a tear. “I’m not claiming I’m a saint. I’m a human being,” Darden told the paper. “I try and lead a good life, but it doesn’t mean I walk around and judge other people.”
But Darden’s raps were not always positive. During Vallejo’s bankruptcy proceedings in 2008 and 2009, Darden released songs attacking the city’s political leaders, who were seeking to reign in spending on Vallejo Police Officer Association contracts, which led to the city’s historic bankruptcy.
“I’m feeling sick and tired of all the trash you’re talking,” Darden rapped in a song about the bankruptcy proceedings posted on his MySpace account. “When the truth comes out, we’re gonna send you walking.”
Former Vallejo Vice Mayor Stephanie Gomes, who advocated against raises for police and firefighters during the bankruptcy, said that Darden used his lyrics to personally attack her. She said it was part of a pattern of intimidation, which included officers responding to a burglar alarm going off at her house and lingering inside for 45 minutes.
Gomes said one song that was later taken down personally attacked her and her husband, Tony Pearsall, a fellow city councilmember and former police captain.
“Darden took it to another level by going extremely personally after me in that rap song,” Gomes recently told the Sun. She complained to then-Police Chief Robert Nichelini, who told her that it was “potentially protected speech.”
“We need to first ask the employee to voluntarily remove any potential offense material,” Nichelini wrote in a 2009 email. “To that end we have met with Corporal Darden and he agreed to remove the ‘rap lyrics’ and any other similar postings.”
In 2012, Darden released a song about slain Vallejo Officer Jim Capoot, who was shot and killed while chasing a robbery suspect in 2011. The song’s proceeds were donated to a trust for the Capoot family. The department promoted the song and it received local media attention.
“Country Club Crest, Vallejo PD found love in the streets that are known for hate,” Darden rapped, referencing the neighborhood where Capoot was killed, where rapper Mac Dre grew up, and Darden now leads its patrol division.
Darden was involved in four shootings as a Vallejo officer
In his time with Vallejo police, Darden has been involved with four shootings, three of them fatal.
The first happened on Aug. 8, 2005, when Darden and Horton, who was a sergeant at the time, reportedly returned fire after Horton confronted a man acting erratically near a Denny’s restaurant on Fairgrounds Drive. An autopsy found that the suspect, Steven Wilson, shot and killed himself.
Darden’s second shooting was on Feb. 11, 2011, when he was one of eight Vallejo police officers and two Napa County Sheriff’s deputies who killed Sherman Peacock after Peacock allegedly pointed a gun at them. Records show that one of the officers in that shooting later sent his badge for repairs to straighten the point, potentially indicating that it was bent to mark the shooting.
Darden became a source of controversy for the department when video of a 2011 incident was leaked to ABC7 news. The video showed Darden hit robbery victim Blake Robles after he complained about how long it took for Vallejo police to arrive.
“I’m not on your time watch,” Darden said.
Robles responded, “You guys take for-fucking-ever.” Darden stepped forward, standing inches from Robles.
“U.S. soldier bro, know who you’re talking to,” Robles said. Darden hit him, knocking him to the ground.
“I know who I’m talking to. You’re down. You understand that?” Darden said as he held Robles on the ground. “You’re talking to a United States Marine.”
In the ABC7 report, Horton — then head of the Vallejo police professional standards division — declined to say whether Darden’s behavior was inappropriate and denied that supervisors had played the video during a briefing and laughed about it.
Months after the video was made public in February 2013, Darden was promoted to sergeant.
Darden’s third and fourth shootings happened just before he would receive a medal of valor in May 2014.
On June 8, 2013, then-Officer Darden shot and killed 57-year-old Mohammad Naas after Naas had allegedly killed his wife and then confronted Darden with a gun. On April 9, 2014, Darden and Officer Joseph McCarthy shot and killed 29-year-old Ever Ramon Martinez after they ended a vehicle pursuit by pinning Martinez’s car between two patrol cars.
Complaints about Darden’s anger issues inside VPD
Darden was the subject of a complaint from a dispatcher in early 2014, according to emails obtained by the Sun. Then-Lt. Kevin Barlett wrote in a Feb. 23, 2014, email to Lt. Sid DeJesus and Horton, who had been promoted to captain by then, that he had spoken to a dispatcher who said she wanted to quit because of the way that Darden had been treating her.
“She said whenever he talks to her he is condescending and she gets the feeling that he does not like her and wants her to quit,” Bartlett wrote.
Bartlett went on to say that he believed there was credence to her claim. “I personally supervised Sgt. Darden for 2 years on Squad 5 and during that time he was a very good, hard working officer and accepted constructive criticism reasonably well, although he had his moments relating to anger as you both know,” Bartlett wrote.
Bartlett said he had recently spoken to Darden about a different issue and Darden had become unreasonably angry. Bartlett suggested that Darden “may need some guidance or professional help with his personality flaws or anger, as it appears to be effecting [sic] others more than the acceptable standards.”
DeJesus and Horton, however, dismissed the suggestion. “I consider Steve to be one of our stronger sergeants and that is because of the leadership role he has taken,” DeJesus wrote. “He has been nothing short of spectacular with regard to his recruitment efforts, and the tone he has set is one which was very much needed.”
“You might want to be careful hanging that anger management jacket on Steve, when in my opinion, he has been performing exceedingly well,” Horton said. “You are actually a little out there on that Kevin. I don’t believe Steve needs an anger management intervention. He is doing just fine.”
The exchange was forwarded to Darden’s supervisor, then-Lt. Kenny Park, who also disregarded the complaint. “Steve is very conscientious about getting along with everyone and he very much thinks of the welfare of all our organization’s employees,” Park wrote. “I will have to respectfully disagree with you on your assessment that Steve has anger management issues.”
But a complaint three years later from McCarthy — the second officer involved in Darden’s 2014 fatal shooting — led to numerous officers accusing Darden of unchecked anger, bullying subordinates, and even dishonesty. Some employees said that they wanted to quit the force because of Darden or that others left because of his behavior. Some said that they believed Horton covered for Darden.
Davis-based consulting firm DR Associates was hired to conduct the investigation into McCarthy’s harassment complaint. A May 28, 2018, report signed by DR Associates investigator David Reuben that was obtained by the Sun did not sustain the allegation that Darden had harassed McCarthy. However, Reuben concluded, “It is clear that Sergeant Darden’s administrative methods when dealing with subordinates must be questioned. The multiple comments of personnel suggest this aggressive approach has not been well received and has affected staff morale.”
McCarthy alleged that he had difficulties with Darden dating back to 2016, when Darden had been “aggressive and angry” with him about a recruit McCarthy was training. McCarthy alleged that Darden yelled at him in front of a trainee. McCarthy described three other incidents when Darden had yelled at him or treated him unprofessionally, culminating in an incident on Dec. 28, 2017, which led to McCarthy’s complaint.
According to the report, Darden had left on a call and asked McCarthy to fill in on a briefing. When Darden returned and found the briefing had run long, McCarthy alleged that Darden ordered everyone out and then berated him and was “loud, threatening and unprofessional.” McCarthy alleged that Horton covered for Darden’s behavior because they were friends.
When Darden was interviewed by investigators, he said that he had spoken to McCarthy “sternly” but in a conversational tone. He said that since the incident McCarthy had shown “subtle disrespect” and said in an email to Sgt. Drew Ramsay two days later that McCarthy had a “disgruntled” and “poor salty attitude.”
McCarthy brought his complaint to Lt. Herman Robinson, who was also interviewed for the investigation. Robinson told investigators that four years prior, he went on a burglary call with Darden where Darden claimed that he saw a second suspect in a residence and called for a SWAT team, leading to a three-hour standoff where no suspect was found. “In Robinson’s opinion Darden made up the second suspect,” the report states. Robinson said that he reported the incident to Horton, who told him, “Darden has a strong personality.” Robinson said that numerous officers could not work with Darden.
Other officers made similar complaints.
Officer Jesse Hicks said that Darden tends to “berate” personnel, and he avoids him. Officer Gary Jones said Darden likes to “speak loudly, not allow you to be heard, and lecture without discussion” and he did not work overtime when Darden was on duty.
Officer Amanda Blain said that Darden “bullies” people and likes to yell. Officer Stephanie McDonough said that Darden has a “control issue” and picks a “flavor of the month” he targets for criticism. Officer Bryan Glick said that Darden “targets” people, and he also avoided overtime shifts with Darden. Officer John Ehman said that he once got into a "screaming argument" with Darden and knows he can be "out of control."
A dispatcher said she submitted a complaint about Darden in 2018 for harassment after he came into the dispatch area yelling. She said he was told to avoid coming into dispatch after that. A dispatch supervisor said that she had difficulties with Darden and that she was fearful of him because “he goes haywire” with little provocation. But she believed that Horton protected him from discipline. She said if Darden was promoted to lieutenant, she would get another job.
A history of awards and promotions
Despite Darden’s reputation and the complaints against his behavior, he continued to be rewarded and his status in the department and the community rose.
Darden continued sporadically releasing music. In 2017, he released a song, “Let It Go” with guitar from producer James Early, who among other famous musicians produced for MC Hammer, including his hit song “2 Legit 2 Quit.”
“No I don’t gang bang but I wear blue; I rep the thin line protecting you,” Darden raps. “You say don’t need me I don’t believe that; Crime wave hits, you take it all back.”
The song earned him a new feature in the Vallejo Times-Herald.
“No matter what you do and how you do it, you’re going to have people who just don’t like you as a police officer,” Darden told the Times-Herald in 2017. “You shouldn’t paint law enforcement with a broad brush and that’s pretty much what we’re facing.”
On April 27, 2017, Vallejo police awarded Darden with a medal of merit and on April 26, 2018 — while the investigation into McCarthy’s complaint was underway — Darden was given a good conduct medal.
Later that year, Darden was involved in an incident that led to a $120,000 settlement for excessive force. According to the city, it started when Officer Jake Estrada noticed a minivan that had crashed into the garage door of a home and was left running and in reverse.
Officers Travis Aspegren, Yanett Hernandez and then-Sgt. Darden arrived and entered the home to search it. Estrada found what he believed to be a dead body in a bedroom, and the officers stormed another bedroom belonging to Rodolfo Lopez and punched and hit him with batons.
Following Lopez’s arrest, the officers discovered that the person was not dead.
Lopez sued the city in 2020, alleging that he suffered a concussion, a mild traumatic brain injury, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Lopez settled his lawsuit earlier this year.
Darden was promoted to lieutenant in 2020, but subordinates have continued to complain about his behavior. The handling of one such complaint was part of what led to the termination of Deputy Police Chief Michael Kihmm.
That issue started with a complaint that Officer Jordan Patzer sent to then-Capt. Jason Potts on Sept. 10 saying his patrol squad had “ongoing issues” with their superiors, Sgt. Jodi Brown and Darden. The complaint mentioned “retaliation,” “harassment” and “hostile work environment,” according to a letter from then-Police Chief Shawny Williams.
Williams wrote that Potts had a series of “ill-conceived” meetings with the members of the patrol squad, Brown and Darden without consulting the city’s human resources department first. Darden then had a meeting with Brown and Patzer, which resulted in Brown and Patzer calling each other liars, according to Williams.
Kihmm wrote in a response letter that when Darden contacted Brown and the patrol squad about the allegations, it caused “further frustrations amongst the officers on the team.” Potts did not advise or encourage Darden to do that, according to Kihmm.
Neither the city nor Darden responded to questions about why Darden did not allow his superiors to handle the matter or whether he was disciplined.
‘He’s a bully’
Darden has taken a key leadership role as the department has reorganized in response to a series of high-profile incidents of deadly force and revelations that some officers bent the tips of their star-shaped badges after on-duty shootings.
In March, Vallejo announced that it would assign lieutenants to command four local geographic areas in an initiative meant to encourage “relational policing” by cultivating strong relationships to “understand the unique needs of the neighborhoods they represent.”
“The foundation of change begins with relationships,” Williams, who resigned earlier this month, said in a statement. “In 2022, we are restoring our commitment to building strong relationships and creating healthy communities through relation-based policing.”
Darden was placed in charge of North Vallejo, which includes the Country Club Crest neighborhood, which Darden once rapped was “known for hate.”
For Gomes — the former vice mayor who Darden once rapped about — Darden’s latest promotion to lieutenant in charge of a specific geographical area puts the wrong person in a leadership role in the department.
"Darden himself, his behavior, professionally, as a police officer has been called into question many times and rightfully so,” Gomes said. “He's a bully when he has his uniform on. He's a bully when he has it off. He's a terrible representative of the city of Vallejo and should have been gone a long time ago.”
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THE VALLEJO SUN NEWSLETTER
Investigative reporting, regular updates, events and more
- Vallejo Police Department
- Steve Darden
- Lee Horton
- Badge bending
- Josh Coleman
- Nef the Pharoah
- Vallejo Times-Herald
- Vallejo Police Officers Association
- Stephanie Gomes
- Tony Pearsall
- Robert Nichelini
- James Capoot
- The Crest
- Mac Dre
- Steven Wilson
- Blake Robles
- Mohammad Naas
- Ever Ramon Martinez
- Joseph McCarthy
- Sid DeJesus
- Kevin Bartlett
- Kenny Park
- DR Associates
- David Reuben
- Herman Robinson
- Jesse Hicks
- Gary Jones
- Amanda Blain
- Bryan Glick
- James Early
- Travis Aspegren
- Yanett Hernandez
- Jake Estrada
- Rodolfo Lopez
- Michael Kihmm
- Jordan Patzer
- Jason Potts
- Jodi Brown
- Shawny Williams
Scott Morris is a journalist based in Oakland who covers policing, protest, civil rights and far-right extremism. His work has been published in ProPublica, the Appeal and Oaklandside.
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