Calif. city declares emergency to speed police reforms

The proclamation allows Vallejo city officials to quickly appoint personnel within the police department that has struggled with community trust amid numerous police killings


By Vanessa Arredondo
San Francisco Chronicle

VALLEJO, Calif. — Vallejo city officials declared a public safety emergency Tuesday intended to speed up reform initiatives for the city’s Police Department, which for years has been marred by slayings by officers, use-of-force lawsuits, high crime rates and low community trust.

The emergency proclamation will allow the city to quickly appoint personnel in what the city deems critical management positions in the Police Department. The proclamation authorizes the hiring of command staff, and allows the implementation of a police “redeployment plan” to increase patrol resources.

The Police Department’s top brass “can’t do this by ourselves,” Chief Shawny Williams said during Tuesday’s City Council meeting. “We need an executive team that helps us to move our reforms forward and deliver the service that our community expects.”

Mayor Bob Sampayan said the first task will be to find someone to fill the department’s assistant chief vacancy. The number of sworn officers has gone down to 77 from 163, and although the Police Department is in the process of rebuilding, it can no longer pay the salaries and benefits that it once did.

The proclamation also allows for implementation of “urgently needed” policies without conferring with the Vallejo Police Officers Association beforehand, though Vallejo’s city manager and Williams will still request support from the union as reforms are designed and implemented.

The police union castigated the emergency declaration — which the Vallejo City Council approved unanimously — as a serious overreach and plans to challenge the measure in court.

“This so-called declaration of emergency should cause everyone grave concern. The city effectively seeks to set aside due process, civil service rules, and established law to create a dictatorship in response to its own administrative failures,” the police union said in a statement prior to Tuesday’s meeting.

Internal scandals, public perception about a profound lack of police accountability, increasing use-of-force lawsuits, and continued resistance to reform efforts has tainted the community’s trust in the Vallejo Police Department, officials said.

The state Department of Justice began collaborating with the city in June after several high-profile incidents of police use of force raised concerns at the California Attorney General’s Office. This collaboration will continue for three years as the city works to implement police reforms through the emergency proclamation, Assistant City Manager Anne Cardwell said.

Vallejo experienced an unprecedented increase in crime this year, and the city is on course to have the highest rate of shootings in its history, officials said. As of Sept. 30, the city had 358 shooting victims, an increase of 40% from last year. Homicides in the city doubled to 22, and rapes increased by about 40%, according to city data.

The city’s estimated cost of litigation for police misconduct may exceed $50 million, city officials said. Currently, there are 24 use-of-force claims and 13 government tort claims pending against Vallejo police officers. The city recently agreed to pay the family of Ronell Foster $5.7 million to settle a civil rights suit against the city and the police officer who shot and killed him. Continued claims against the city Police Department have forced the city to seek a new excess insurance provider.

“We’ve had some struggles with our Police Department, and because of that, we wanted to make significant change,” Sampayan said. “We want to see reform. We want the ability for our chief of police to control his Police Department. We want a Police Department that will be trusted by our community. And we haven’t had that in quite some time.”

The emergency proclamation must be reaffirmed by the Vallejo City Council every 60 days.

©2020 the San Francisco Chronicle

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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