Complex problems in Vallejo suggest myriad solutions

There is no magic solution to reforming a police department.

The city of Vallejo is learning that the hard way as it attempts to mend a police force that has killed 19 people since 2010 in the city of 120,000. Moving forward, Vallejo will need to decide how to address not just the number of fatal interactions between the police and local residents, but also the broader issue of police-community relations and trust.

Three other Bay Area cities — Oakland, San Francisco and Richmond — have attempted reforming their police departments with approaches as varied as federal oversight to civilian commissions to community policing to bolstered social services. At least some Vallejo leaders have taken note, and seem particularly keen to apply the measures that build bridges rather than silos.

“The department needs an adequate command staff, which can help to change the culture,” said Vallejo Mayor Robert McConnell. “That culture change includes a respect for citizens, officers receiving the proper training, and learning how to apply the appropriate force when confronted.”

(L-R) Police Assistant Tina Encarnacion with the Vallejo Police Department’s Community Services Section and Sgt. Jeff Tai at the Vallejo, Calif. waterfront in an undated photo. (Photo courtesy Vallejo Police Department)

McConnell said he is confident the city is moving in the right direction when it comes to reforming the police force, “albeit the process is going slowly.”

Among the most promising reform measures, city leaders believe Vallejo might well benefit from a civilian-led police commission with an investigative agency that reports directly to the commission. Such oversight could bring real change to the department, especially if the Vallejo community has a voice in the process.

San Francisco and Oakland have powerful police commissions — and similarly powerful investigative agencies attached to those commissions. These commissions can impose officer discipline and even have the authority to fire their respective police chiefs.

Some activists, as well as many family members of those killed by Vallejo police, however, argue that a police commission doesn’t go far enough. 

They argue that federal oversight is the only way to meaningfully reform Vallejo’s police force. That can be a long process. In Oakland, for example, the Police Department has been under federal oversight for more than 18 years with no end in sight. 

Civil rights attorney James Chanin, who represented victims in “The Riders” case and helped secure the Negotiated Settlement Agreement that placed Oakland police under federal oversight, said reform efforts are moving in the right direction — although slowly.

“I would like to see (federal oversight) end with all the reforms met,” he said. “It was supposed to end within five years — with two additional years if needed. That would have been 2010 — we are a long way from 2010.”

Chanin said he hopes Oakland police will come into compliance by the end of 2022. 

The civil rights lawyer said police reform is about political will. 

“We tried with the city of Oakland. Settlements after settlements didn’t work,” said Chanin. “There was no political will to change so we went to the court instead.”

While some attorneys for the families of victims say they would like to see a federal monitor in Vallejo, that would require a court order or formal settlement, and in the absence of such an order it’s impossible to speculate what type of oversight a monitor might seek.

The city of Richmond and its efforts to connect police with residents may offer the most promising example for Vallejo. In Richmond, a neighborhood policing model adopted under former Police Chief Chris Magnus helped reduce crime and build a bridge between the Police Department and community.

Although it faces funding pressures, Richmond has used foot and bicycle patrols to put officers more in touch with community residents, and the results have been encouraging. Although homicide numbers, for example, are showing an uptick, they remain well below pre-beat policing levels. 

Vallejo has made some small steps along this path. Through its Operation PEACE (Predictive Enforcement and Community Engagement) project, begun last year under Chief Shawny Williams, the city has sought to improve interactions between police and the community, using bike patrols and other measures. And last year, the city council agreed to hire an interim police auditor to review internal police investigations. City officials are also weighing an outside project called Advance Peace that works on a variety of levels to reduce gun violence.

A billboard near Vallejo Police Department with a sketch of Sean Monterrosa and a message “Justice for Sean Monterrosa” unveiled on Sept. 27, 2020, in Solano County, Calif. (Harika Maddala/ Bay City News)

These steps are all encouraging, but it seems clear that police-community relations remain characterized by community distrust of law enforcement and an us-versus-them attitude among officers. The Vallejo Police Officers Association did not respond to a request for comments on this series.

Perhaps the greatest reason for hope lies in the recognition that stronger measures are needed.

In an attempt to find the most promising solutions, the City Council has voted to conduct a citywide equity study that would help officials make meaningful decisions on which programs and services to fund amid the “defund the police” movement.

Vallejo City Councilwoman Pippin Dew pushed for the survey.

“We need to understand how these systemic biases exist. If we can understand it, we can change it,” said Dew, saying it doesn’t make sense to re-allocate city money, especially from the police budget, without having a plan on where to direct the funding.

Dew said she believes “defunding the police” should be more about placing money in “comprehensive, robust, early education centers” that are affordable and located in places that families can reach by walking.

“For me, it’s about coming at that approach to reduce crime,” Dew added. “I would love this to be a long-term approach to defunding the police. That’s where we start.”

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.