ON MARCH 8, the Vallejo City Council will decide whether to OK a $30 million loan to redo and retrofit a nearly 60,000 square-foot building on one of the most beautiful stretches of town, the waterfront.

The 400 Mare Island Way site is the former home of a gigantic State Farm Insurance building that was purchased by the city in 2019 for $13 million in hopes of housing the police. Vallejo knew that the place needed work, specifically millions in retrofitting and remodeling, so it put Measure G on the ballot in an attempt to raise the funds. But then something unexpected happened — Measure G failed with the voters, largely, some say, because people didn’t want to pay millions more for a new police building.

To Vallejo’s Police Chief Shawny Williams, getting a new police station has been a high priority. Since he came on in 2019, Williams has attempted to move the embattled department into what he calls “21st Century policing.” For him this has meant a greater dependence on technology such as license plate readers, cell-site simulators, and greater community engagement. It has also meant moving the force into a bigger, better building along the waterfront that will house the whole department with room for a CARE Center, or Community Assistance Resource and Engagement Center for victim advocacy.

Williams has said that the current station is often cited as a reason that officers have left his force.

“Morale at the police department has significantly deteriorated because of poor working conditions,” he wrote in a staff report to the council.

The chief says 400 Mare Island Way is designed to protect and serve people, and its high visibility will send a message that it’s a “pillar of safety and community policing.”

But to some in town, the proposed new police station would be an expensive edifice to at best dysfunction and at worst one of the most violent police forces in the country.

Painful memories

The statistics are grim: Vallejo Police have killed 19 people since 2010. Though police-involved shootings have fallen precipitously on Williams’ watch, the killing of Sean Monterrosa in the Walgreens parking lot during the George Floyd protests of 2020 during his tenure remains a controversial and painful mark on the department. It is also being investigated by the California Department of Justice.

There’s one thing that nearly everyone in Vallejo agrees on: The police department needs a new headquarters. The current 20,000 square-foot building is riddled with sewage leaks, asbestos, lead and a faulty air and heating system. It is far too small to house everyone. The lobby has austere, black seating with chains dangling from some seats. Victims of crimes had been questioned in bleak, cold holding areas — hence the need for the CARE Center, which has already set up shop in the Mare Island Way building, along with the detective division, the investigations division, and the professional standards division. (A protest about this development took place on May 24, 2021, during the CARE Center’s ribbon cutting ceremony.)

The neon sign outside the Vallejo Police Department at 111 Amador St. harkens back to an era when both the city and its police force were smaller. Chief Shawny Williams and other city leaders have argued the need for a larger, more modern police station. (Photo by Harika Maddala/Bay City News)

What has become controversial is exactly where the new building will be and how much it will cost. The Vallejo Police Department is already woefully understaffed, so much so that dispatchers must triage which 911 calls get answered immediately and which ones may never be answered. Proponents of the new building say that it will attract new hires. Opponents say that dedicating a big new building to an understaffed department is throwing money in the wrong direction.

Much of the distrust around the building comes from how some say former City Manager Greg Nyhoff handled the situation. Nyhoff, who resigned in July 2021, promised the council he would put together a detailed budget for any new station, along with where to get the money. He left before doing so. A search for a new city manager is now underway, and the director of the water department, Mike Malone, has stepped in as interim city manager in the meantime. Malone has now placed securing a $30 million dollar loan for Mare Island Way on the council’s agenda.

Opponents prepare

A protest about the $30 million loan is planned this coming Tuesday at City Hall, during the council meeting in which the money will be discussed. A petition to oppose the new building is also circulating around town. Vocal resident Anne Carr has collected the main reasons why people oppose the new headquarters:

• It’s not big enough. VPD has said it needs at least 69,000 square feet to house its new department. The State Farm building is 59,000 square feet.

• It’s not a strategic location. 400 Mare Island Way is relatively far from most main arteries in town, including Interstate 80. The thoroughfare is often populated with people enjoying the marina and other waterfront attractions, making it dangerous for speeding police cars. Some people also question what message it would send tourists who will see a giant police station in such a prominent location.

(City staff and Williams have argued that there are several effective police headquarters located on waterfronts, including Napa, Sausalito, Long Beach, San Diego, Venice Beach, Capitola, Pismo Beach and Carpenteria.)

• It’s too expensive. The $30 million will be paid over time by residents, and that’s only if the costs stop there. Vallejo has a history of money mismanagement, having declared bankruptcy in 2008. Currently, a planned navigation center for unhoused people has yet to break ground and has already doubled in budget, for example.

Carr has called for $9.1 million to fix the current station, community engagement through town halls and study sessions to discuss next steps, and for the city to put the issue on the ballot to allow voters to decide, not the City Council.

The building proposed as a new Vallejo Police Department headquarters sits across from a waterfront park and the Vallejo Yacht Harbor. (Google image)

A town in ‘economic turmoil’

City Council Member Tina Arriola has said that she decided to run for council because of the proposed new police building.

“We are in economic turmoil,” she said on Facebook back in 2021. “We must make fiscally responsible decisions that will allow us to support badly needed social programs, to afford filling potholes and to avoid bankruptcy. We need a new police station. 400 Mare Island Way is not the right place.”

A majority of the City Council has indicated in the past that it supports the new building at the Mare Island Way location, arguing that muggings at the waterfront could be abated, that it will attract new hires, and that it is the only building that truly meets all the department’s needs.

The Vallejo City Council will decide on whether or not to accept the $30 million loan and thereby greenlight the new police station at the March 8 meeting. The council meets at 7 p.m. at 555 Santa Clara St. and online via Zoom.

Katy St. Clair, Bay City News

Katy St. Clair got her start in journalism by working in the classifieds department at the East Bay Express during the height of alt weeklies, then sweet talked her way into becoming staff writer, submissions editor, and music editor. She has been a columnist in the East Bay Express, SF Weekly, and the San Francisco Examiner. Starting in 2015, she begrudgingly scaled the inverted pyramid at dailies such as the Vallejo Times-Herald, The Vacaville Reporter, and the Daily Republic. She has her own independent news site and blog that covers the delightfully dysfunctional town of Vallejo, California, where she also collaborates with the investigative team at Open Vallejo. A passionate advocate for people with developmental disabilities, she serves on both the Board of the Arc of Solano and the Arc of California. She lives in Vallejo.