Civilian oversight offers one tool for keeping police accountable in Vallejo

As protests against police violence swept across the country following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May 2020, the shooting death of a 22-year-old San Francisco man at the hands of a Vallejo police detective amplified the push to reform the troubled Vallejo Police Department.

The death of Sean Monterrosa in June 2020 was the latest in a series of police killings that have brought growing scrutiny to policing practices in Vallejo. Between January 2017 and June 2020, Vallejo officers shot at nine men, killing five, causing activists, elected officials and community members to call for greater oversight of the department.

Laura Monterrosa, mother of Sean, holds up his picture and watches La Dona sing during Tucan Day, a public event held to honor him. (Harika Maddala/ Bay City News)

An important part of any solution, some argue, can be found in a civilian-led police commission that serves a dual purpose: Keeping officers in check and having the ability to change departmental policy. 

“I supported, and still do, support all city of Vallejo employees, but we need to rein in the department so we can stop getting sued,” said Bob Sampayan, who served on the Vallejo City Council for nine years, including as mayor from 2016-2020. Sampayan retired as a sergeant from the Vallejo Police Department in 2006.

There are more than 160 civilian oversight entities in the country, according to the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement (NACOLE), a nonprofit that creates “a community of support for independent, civilian oversight entities that seek to make their local law enforcement agencies more transparent, accountable and responsive to the communities they serve.”

Gianina Irlando, a member-at-large on NACOLE’s board of directors, said there isn’t a one-size-fits-all oversight model.

“The best model is the one the community picks,” she said when asked what type would work in Vallejo. “You must have the community involved. If they are not part of the process then they won’t embrace it.” 

Typically, existing oversight models fall into three broad categories. One is an investigation-focused model that reviews and investigates allegations of police misconduct. In this approach, the police commission has significant authority, including the ability to hire and fire the police chief. 

A second model, the auditor/monitor, focuses on promoting organizational change within a police department by reviewing departmental policies, practices and officer training. The monitor may also review or participate with internal affairs investigations, and they can request that additional work be done on an investigation.

Sean Monterrosa (Photo courtesy Monterrosa family)

The final model, review-focused, typically involves citizen volunteers who examine the quality of internal investigations. The review is done by a civilian-led board or commission that is designed to provide community input regarding the internal investigation process.  

Many supporters of civilian oversight say the investigation-focused model provides the greatest accountability because it offers an independent way to investigate complaints, hand out officer discipline and use policy to make changes.

Vallejo has broached the idea of some type of commission, but has stopped short of defining a structure or implementing. 

Fifty-six days after Monterrosa was shot and killed outside a Vallejo Walgreens, the City Council agreed to create an auditor position — tasked with reviewing misconduct complaints against the department. At the same time, however, the City Council rejected one council member’s proposal to create an independent police commission.

Body cam footage shows Vallejo police officers at the scene of the officer-involved fatal shooting of Sean. (Photo courtesy of Vallejo Police Department)

Months later, in October, the council received a presentation about different police commission models, and it directed staff to schedule study sessions aimed at finding the correct model for Vallejo. But nine months later, there has been no action on the models.

Vallejo Police Chief Shawny Williams supports civilian oversight, according to the department’s spokeswoman Brittany K. Jackson, although she didn’t specify what form it should take.

“There are many types of civilian oversight, the City of Vallejo must conduct study sessions to determine which model will work best for our city,” Jackson said. “A cost assessment is also necessary; for example, the Oakland model of civilian oversight is approximately 4.3 million dollars.” 

As Vallejo continues to struggle with how to rein in a department that has killed 19 people since 2010, two nearby Bay Area cities — San Francisco and Oakland  — have created civilian-led commissions in the face of calls to reform their respective police departments.

Malia Cohen, president of the San Francisco Police Commission, said the commission is vital to keeping police in check. 

“It’s incredibly important to have civilian oversight that works with the department,” said Cohen. “People don’t have 100 percent blind faith in law enforcement anymore.”

Cohen pointed to the commission’s May decision updating a policy that establishes guidelines on when San Francisco police officers are allowed to stop and search suspects. The new language instructs officers that a person’s appearance, like their  “race, color, ethnicity … or socioeconomic status does not justify even a brief detention, a request for identification, or an order to move on, nor do general complaints from residents, merchants or others.” 

In Oakland, several agencies hold the Police Department accountable, including the Community Police Review Agency (CPRA), which acts as the investigative arm of the Oakland Police Commission. The police commission oversees the department’s policies and procedures, while the CPRA investigates community members’ allegations of officer misconduct, including officer use-of-force, in-custody deaths and racial profiling. The CPRA also recommends officer discipline. 

John Alden, who serves as CPRA executive director, said creating a framework on how officers interact with the community through departmental policy is vital for a commission to be successful.

The City of Oakland Police Station at 455 7th Street in Oakland, Calif. on Wednesday, March 3, 2021. (Keith Burbank/Bay City News)

“When the commissions have power to change (police department) policy, everyone wins,” Alden said. 

Prior to 2016, Oakland relied on the Citizens’ Police Review Board, established in 1980, to review certain complaints of misconduct by park rangers or police officers. The board conducted investigations, but only provided advisory reports to the city administrator. Over time, the board’s jurisdiction was expanded to include review of excessive force complaints and to have subpoena power over officers and park rangers. 

But in 2016, Oakland voters passed Measure LL, which created the more powerful Police Commission. With passage of Measure LL, the old board was disbanded in late 2017 with the Community Police Review Agency created in its place.

Last November, voters returned to the polls and approved a separate ballot measure that cleaned up language in the city’s charter by removing a clause that would allow the Oakland police chief the power to override the City Council and Police Commission during emergencies. 

The measure also added an Office of Inspector General to investigate and review Oakland’s handling of police misconduct.

San Francisco Police Chief, William ‘Bill’ Scott.

Importantly, both Oakland and San Francisco have police commissions with the ability to terminate the police chief. 

John Hamasaki, who sits on the San Francisco Police Commission, said the ability to fire the chief is crucial.

“Ultimately, (the chief) has to listen to us,” Hamasaki said. “We don’t have to worry if the police are policing itself — the commission does that.”

The Oakland Police Commission used its power in February 2020 when it fired Chief Anne Kirkpatrick without formal cause. The former chief, who had been with the Oakland Police Department for about three years, had faced increased criticism over her handling of discipline for officers in a high-profile officer-involved shooting. 

Rashidah Grinage, a member of the Coalition for Police Accountability in Oakland, said the ability to fire the police chief is crucial to reforming a police force. 

“There is no way you can hold a department accountable if you can’t hold the chief accountable,” said Grinage, who lost her son and husband during a confrontation with officers regarding a dog in 1993. During the shootout, the son shot and killed an officer.

The coalition, which pushed for the new independent commission, strongly advocates for oversight and accountability of the Oakland Police Department. 

Just like Oakland, San Francisco has a civilian-staffed agency — the Department of Police Accountability — which investigates civilian complaints regarding on-duty misconduct by sworn members of the San Francisco Police Department. When the agency sustains one or more allegations against an officer in a case, the chief or the police commission hands out the discipline. The chief of police can issue discipline of up to a 10-day suspension, but the commission has the ability to take stronger measures, including termination.

The entrance to the San Francisco Police Department headquarters. (Harika Maddala/ Bay City News)

Despite having some of the strongest police commissions in the country, there are still issues with the models in San Francisco and Oakland.

In Oakland, the mayor appoints three commissioners, while the remaining four are picked by a selection panel. The panel is appointed by the mayor and Oakland City Council. While in San Francisco, commissioners are appointed by the mayor and Board of Supervisors. 

Cohen, Hamasaki and Alden suggest that not all picks have been ideal. 

“Whom you pick for the commission is important,” said Mike Nisperos, who was one of the original members of the Oakland Police Commission. He also served as interim executive director of the Community Police Review Agency for three months before John Alden was hired in July 2019.

“You need fair people that will offer credibility,” Nisperos added. 

Nisperos said independent oversight can also be costly, and in June 2020, Oakland City Auditor Courtney Ruby said the police commission was hampered by a lack of administrative support, planning, and there were issues with the commission’s investigations.

Yet, data from SFPD show that the city’s police commission might be paying off.

From 2012-2016, the department shot and killed 16 people, while the number dropped to six in the most recent four-year period, from 2017 to present day. When it comes to Oakland, the numbers are a bit murkier. There were seven fatal interactions between 2012 and 2016, though five of those cases came in 2015 alone. Data show Oakland officers have killed five people from 2017 to the present, providing inconclusive information on whether the police commission has helped reform the department, especially since debate continues on whether all of those shootings were justified. 

In March 2018,  31-year-old Joshua Pawlik was shot to death by four Oakland police officers after they found him sleeping in an alley with a gun in his hand.

YouTube video
Video of Joshua Pawlik Police Shooting John Burris Law Offices

Almost a year and a half after Pawlik’s death, a special three-member discipline committee of the Oakland police commission voted to fire the four officers, plus a supervisor, involved in the shooting. The officers have gone on to file a federal lawsuit demanding that a judge overturn the commission’s decision.

Oakland eventually paid Pawlik’s mother $1.4 million to settle the wrongful death lawsuit she brought against the city as groups continue to question tactics used by police.

In December 2015, five San Francisco police officers fatally shot and killed Mario Woods, who was holding a knife but walking away from them in the city’s Bayview District. The controversial shooting, caught on video, caused widespread protests as many questioned the tactics used by police leading up to the shooting.

The city’s police commission eventually revised the department’s use of force policy, prohibiting officers from using force against someone who is suffering from a mental health issue but not threatening others. 

What lessons Vallejo will draw from the experiences in Oakland and San Francisco is yet to be determined.

Last October, the Vallejo City Council did hire the consulting firm OIR Group as the city’s interim police auditor. In that role, OIR will be tasked with auditing misconduct complaints and the department’s discipline process; receiving notice about critical incidents, including officer-involved shootings; auditing the department’s policies, training, and procedures, and conducting independent investigations when needed.

Vallejo Police Chief Shawny Williams.

Williams, the police chief, also recently announced his selection of 18 local residents to serve on his Advisory Board. The board will serve in an advisory capacity to Williams, providing the chief with guidance on community policing and giving Williams feedback about community concerns.

Supporters say the CAB can help Williams and his command staff formulate policies that will help improve the relationship between the department and community, but critics fear the board will merely serve as a rubber stamp for Williams. 

Vallejo Councilwoman Cristina Arriola says she doesn’t know whether a police commission is a good fit for the city of Vallejo, unless it’s given broad authority.

“(Otherwise), it may not have enough teeth,” Arriola said. “These families will never see justice if we don’t make sure officers can be disciplined or even fired.”

Like Arriola, Hamasaki and Alden agree that a strong civilian-led police commission is the only effective way to reform a police department with a history like Vallejo’s.

“A powerful police commission stops cops from investigating cops,” Alden said. “You have to take power out of the hands of the police chief, police department and the police union.”

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.