In extreme situations, communities like Vallejo look outside for police oversight
By all accounts, Carl Edwards was having an ordinary day in July 2017 as the handyman quietly worked on welding a fence outside of a building he owns in the city of Vallejo.
But it became anything but ordinary. By the end of the day, Edwards was bleeding profusely from his head with a broken nose and two black eyes as he lay face down on concrete while a Vallejo police officer pushed his knee into his neck – a maneuver that killed a man a few years later in Minneapolis.
In November 2020, Vallejo agreed to pay Edwards $750,000 to settle an excessive force complaint he filed against the city and its police force in federal court.
Edwards’ case is among the most recent examples in a long string of incidents involving questionable use of force by Vallejo police.
For many local residents, activists and civil rights lawyers, it provides proof that outside accountability will be required to address the deep-seated cultural problems in the Vallejo police force.
And the best way to achieve that accountability, they say, is to place the Police Department under federal review.
“The Vallejo Police Department is so internally rotten, nothing short of a federal monitor will bring the needed change,” said attorney Michael Haddad, who represented Edwards in his federal civil case against the city of Vallejo. “The Vallejo Police Department has historically been resistant to obeying the Constitution. They act like they own the city.”
Local civil rights attorney Melissa Nold, who has filed multiple excessive force and/or wrongful death lawsuits against Vallejo and its police force, agrees that strong federal oversight is the only way to bring reform to the city’s police force.
Nold represents the family of Willie McCoy, a 20-year-old Suisun City man shot and killed by six Vallejo police officers outside a local Taco Bell in February 2019. McCoy, who was unconscious behind the wheel of his vehicle parked in the restaurant’s drive-thru, suffered 38 gunshot wounds.
“Federal oversight is mandatory,” Nold said. “Anything less won’t do.”
Nold believes a federal monitor system adopted by Oakland nearly 20 years ago is the perfect model to reform VPD.
The independent monitor system in Oakland was born from a 2003 settlement between the city and more than 100 people who filed federal lawsuits against Oakland, claiming they had been subjected to abuse by several Oakland police officers known as “The Riders.”
Four Oakland police officers were accused of planting evidence, beating citizens, and kidnapping residents in the city. The abuse was uncovered when a rookie police officer resigned and reported his former co-workers’ alleged crimes to the department’s internal affairs division.
Eventually, a negotiated settlement agreement (NSA) was reached in federal court. The NSA provided $11 million to the plaintiffs, but importantly it also established a federal monitor to oversee reform within the department.
Robert Warshaw, a retired police chief, was hired in 2010 to serve as monitor, charged with ensuring that reform efforts continue within the department. Warshaw who reports to U.S. District Judge William Orrick, monitors several areas within OPD, including use of force, internal affairs and citizen complaints, discipline, training and management and supervision.
Since 2014, Warsaw has also served as compliance director of the negotiated settlement agreement, in addition to his duties as federal monitor. The position was first created in December 2012 to bring the Police Department “into sustainable compliance with the NSA.”
Today, 18 years after the initial settlement, many observers believe the monitor has had a positive effect on the Police Department functioning. Although precise statistics are difficult to obtain, anecdotal evidence suggests violent police interactions with civilians have declined and the monitor has made the department far more accountable — and less corruptible.
“The monitor in Oakland is necessary,” said Rashidah Grinage, a member of the Coalition for Police Accountability in Oakland. “Without it – there is no accountability.”
Prominent civil rights attorney John Burris, who was the lead lawyer in the Allen vs. city of Oakland case that ultimately led to the negotiated settlement agreement in Oakland, remains critical of some policing practices in Oakland, but he also sees value in a court overseeing reform of a department.
“A court can hold a city in contempt,” Burris said.
But critics believe there is much more work to be done if the Police Department is truly to serve the community.
Grinage, who lost her son and husband during a confrontation with officers regarding a dog in 1993, says she thought the monitor system would have been dismantled by now with the Oakland Police Commission becoming the natural successor of oversight in Oakland.
Instead, the monitor remains in place, and some argue that’s because the standard for determining whether reforms have been met keep changing, bringing into question whether the federal monitor is an effective solution to reforming a police department.
Some of the strongest criticism has come from Oakland Councilman Noel Gallo, who worries that relying on an outside monitor can obscure the need for grassroots reform.
In February 2020, Gallo wrote to Orrick, asking the judge to end federal oversight of the Police Department. Gallo claimed Oakland, at that point, had spent $28 million on federal oversight since it began in 2003. Gallo is among those arguing the criteria for removing OPD from receivership change too often.
“The monitor only shows up to tell me what’s wrong,” Gallo said. “The whole process of a monitor is extremely expensive and time consuming.”
Those concerns make Gallo skeptical about whether a monitor would improve the situation in Vallejo. There, he said, as in Oakland, the mayor and city government need to “focus more on the community and building trust.”
“Violence is happening in the neighborhoods,” he said. “(Vallejo should) apply dollars to the community to address its needs immediately.”
Gallo pointed to the number of permanent, interim and acting police chiefs Oakland has gone through since he was first elected to the City Council in 2009. That total? 12.
“Having multiple police chiefs doesn’t solve problems – nor does a federal monitor,” Gallo added.
Former Oakland Police Chief Anne Kirkpatrick, who was fired by the city’s Police Commission and Mayor Libby Schaaf in early 2020, has also registered her displeasure with the monitor.
“It’s a million-dollar contract,” she said at the time about the federal monitor’s pay. “Where is the incentive to find you in compliance? We’ve been asking for the metrics so we know what we’re moving towards, but some of these tasks do not have metrics. How do you hit a mark that you don’t know what is being measured?”
At the time of her firing, Kirkpatrick said the department was close to being in compliance with the 50 police reforms agreed to under the 2003 settlement. Meanwhile, Warshaw effectively wore two hats. Court records show that from April 2020 through March 2021, Oakland paid $150,000 — or $12,500 each month — to Warshaw & Associates for Warshaw to act as compliance director, while he also collected more than $800,000 as a federal monitor during the time frame.
Since 2015, Warshaw and his team of consultants have cost the city about $5 million.
Even with the push to reform Oakland’s police force, the city continues to pay large sums of money to settle claims filed against the Oakland Police Department.
According to the city, Oakland made more than $23 million in settlement payments in connection with Oakland police officer incidents between Jan. 1, 2015 and Aug. 31, 2020.
In April 2020, Oakland agreed to pay $1.4 million to the family of a homeless man who was fatally shot by officers in 2018. That man, 32-year-old Joshua Pawlik, was shot multiple times after he was awakened while sleeping on the ground. Pawlik had a weapon in his lap when he was fatally shot on March 11, 2018.
And three years ago, the Oakland City Council approved a $989,000 settlement with a woman formerly known as Celeste Guap, who was at the center of a sexual exploitation case that ensnared more than a dozen Oakland police officers as well as officers with other Bay Area departments.
These settlement figures suggest that police reform remains incomplete in Oakland. The Riders may have disappeared, but police-community relations remain frayed.
Data show African Americans are still far more likely to be stopped by Oakland police officers than other ethnicities, suggesting the department needs additional reform. In 2016, a Stanford University study found that from April 1, 2013 to April 30, 2014, about 10 years after the monitor situation was established, Oakland officers arrested significantly more African Americans than whites.
“Some 60 percent of OPD stops were of African Americans, who make up 28 percent of Oakland’s population,” the study found. The study was conducted by Stanford SPARQ, a self-described “do tank” that looks to “reduce societal disparities and bridge social divides using insights from behavioral science,” according to its website.
The city of Oakland requested the study in order to examine relations between the community and Oakland police.
Researchers found that during the 13-month period, only 20 percent of officers stopped a white person, while 96 percent stopped an African American. They further discovered only 26 percent of officers handcuffed a white person while 72 percent handcuffed an African American.
Sixty-five percent of officers decided to conduct discretionary searches on an African American person, while only 23 percent of officers decided to do such searches on white persons.
Researchers said that Oakland officers were more likely to stop an African American when they were able to identify the community member’s race before conducting a traffic stop.
Those numbers since appear to have improved somewhat, as internal Oakland Police Department data show that during the first three months of 2021 African Americans made up 53 percent of all traffic stops. Latinos made up 26 percent, with whites making up 12 percent.
But coupled with the stop data, an audit by the Police Department’s inspector general found that Oakland police officers failed to report use of force against a suspect in a little more than a third of the incidents from 2018 — and the auditor found that every unreported incident involved either a Latino or African American.
“There were 12 incidents involving 19 subjects in which the audit found the pointing of the firearm should have been reported as a use of force but was not,” the audit found. “Of the 19 subjects, 17 were African American (89%) and 2 were Hispanic (11%).”
The audit also found that the majority of arrestees in 2018 were minorities: African American 60 percent, and 24 percent were Latino.
But if policing in Oakland remains far from ideal, the situation is far more dire in Vallejo, where city officials warn that payouts to settle excessive force and/or wrongful death lawsuits filed against the police force are crippling city finances.
Vallejo has agreed to pay more than $15 million to settle police misconduct lawsuits since 2003 — about the same time Oakland PD went under federal monitoring. This includes the $5.7 million settlement reached between the city of Vallejo and the family of Ronell Foster in September 2020.
Foster was shot seven times by a Vallejo police officer as the pair tussled behind a building in early 2018. The officer, Ryan McMahon, had attempted to conduct a traffic stop on Foster, who was driving his bicycle without a light. McMahon told investigators that he trying to “educate” the 33-year-old man about traffic safety when Foster fled.
The city of Vallejo, which is about a quarter of Oakland’s population of 440,900, is paying out almost the same amount of money to settle excessive force lawsuits as Oakland.
Civil rights attorney Michael Haddad also represented Foster’s family in their lawsuit against the city.
“The city of Vallejo is paying a premium,” Haddad said. “They are afraid that if they face a jury, the payout amounts will be worse (for the city). And in the meantime, officers continue to have an attitude of superiority.”
Burris agreed with that assessment of the situation in Vallejo.
“There is no consistency when it comes to discipline of officers (in Vallejo),” said Burris, who argued that applying discipline can be a way to stem the flow of excessive force claims against the city. “If you don’t have any discipline, they run amok.”
Settlements have become such an issue in Vallejo that the City Council agreed to declare a local public safety emergency in October 2020.
“The city faces potential liability (of) $50 million or more to resolve the multiple lawsuits. While this amount will primarily be paid by insurance coverage, the city still faces an out-of-pocket expense of $15 million to $20 million over the next several years,” wrote Randy Risner, then-interim city attorney, in an Oct. 6 report to the City Council.
Burris said Vallejo City Hall and the city’s police force need to be committed to reforming the department.
“The issue has always been what is the Vallejo Police Department’s willingness to comply with having a monitor,” said Burris.
And that view strikes a responsive chord among the relatives of the victims of police violence.
“The first thing is to get a monitor who can ensure officers are fit for duty,” said Mitchell, who lost her brother Mario Romero to police violence in September 2012.
Those who argue Vallejo needs to be placed under federal oversight point to Solano County District Attorney Krishna Abrams as a key reason why.
Since being elected to office in 2014, Abrams has repeatedly cleared Vallejo officers of any wrongdoing following a fatal interaction with the community, despite widespread concerns about the circumstances surrounding police killings.
For example, Abrams’ office said Vallejo police officer Ryan McMahon “was justified in using deadly force,” when he shot and killed Foster behind a building on the night of Feb. 13, 2018.
Fueling the criticism of Abrams is her failure to to investigate thoroughly fatal officer-involved cases in Vallejo. Last summer, Abrams said her office would not be investigating the Willie McCoy and Sean Monterrosa shooting, saying there was no point in doing so because she lacks credibility in the community.
Monterrosa was shot once in the throat by Vallejo Police Detective Jarrett Tonn while Monterrosa kneeled on the ground outside a Vallejo Walgreens during the early morning hours of June 2, 2020. Meanwhile, Six Vallejo police officers fired 55 rounds at McCoy in 3.5 seconds as the 20-year-old man was unconscious behind the wheel of his vehicle in a Vallejo Taco Bell drive-thru.
A special prosecutor, hired by Abrams to investigate the McCoy shooting, cleared all six officers of any wrongdoing.
Abrams’ opponents argue the DA is too close to the police departments that she is obligated to investigate.
David Alan Sklansky, a law professor at Stanford and former federal prosecutor, said the relationship between DAs and the law enforcement agencies they have to investigate is a “legitimate concern.”
“District attorneys and their staff work day in and day out with the police agencies within their county, so it can be difficult for them to be completely impartial — and to be seen as completely impartial — when they are asked to investigate and possibly prosecute an officer employed by one of those same agencies,” he said. “That’s why it often makes sense for state agencies, especially the attorney general’s office, to take over the criminal investigation and prosecution of police shootings and other police uses of deadly force, as the office of the Minnesota Attorney General did in the Derek Chauvin prosecution.”
Abrams’ refusal to investigate finally forced California Attorney General Rob Bonta to announce on May 13 that his office would investigate Sean Monterrosa’s death to determine whether criminal charges should be filed in the case.
But based on his own unhappy experience, Edwards said he would like to see a federal monitor oversee the Vallejo Police Department and implement such policies as regular drug testing of officers.
“I think there is no reason in this world why they shouldn’t be drug tested,” said Edwards. “Everyone else is.”
Ironically, police said at the time that they were looking for a man wearing a white tank top and black pants, who was chasing children in the area with a slingshot.
Edwards didn’t match the description of the suspect when police approached. The former Vallejo man was wearing a gray T-shirt and tan pants that day outside his building.
And while Edwards’ physical injuries have healed, the emotional damage remains. The spot where police tackled Edwards in front of the building he owns almost four years ago is closed to public view. A new seven-foot fence greets anyone trying to get a view.
Haddad, the man’s lawyer, revealed a stark reality about Edwards building a second fence following his experience with Vallejo police.
“Carl put that fence up not to keep criminals out but the police,” Haddad said.
Lessons from Bay Area Police Reform; Looking at Past Practice, Future Potential in Vallejo
The San Francisco Bay Area is fertile ground to investigate the role of policing in diverse communities and police violence against Black and other people of color — and to learn what has worked to cut that violence while ensuring safety in these communities. With 8 million people, the Bay Area is a diverse region made up of separate jurisdictions that have different experiences with police reform efforts, some longer-standing (Oakland and Richmond), others more recent (San Francisco), and one just announced (Vallejo). With this as a backdrop, we applied a solutions journalism lens to evaluate four types of policing reforms that have been attempted, with mixed results, to achieve more public safety, more community trust, and less police violence.
Read the rest of the series:
This series was reported by John Glidden, supplemented with data visualizations by Chloe Lee Rowlands, edited by Dan Rosenheim and funded by Solutions Journalism Network.