How Did Things Get So Bad Between Vallejo and Its Police?

25 min
Vallejo police officers have shot and killed 21 people since 2005. (Thomas Hawk/Flickr)

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allejo police officers have shot and killed 21 people since 2005, and residents and families of those victims have returned to City Hall repeatedly to say: They've had enough. But it's not just police shootings, which have been driving people to protest in Vallejo since at least 2012. It’s also everyday run-ins with Vallejo police officers that, for years, have added to a sense of mistrust that’s blowing up in City Hall.

So, how did it get this bad?

The Year the Money Dried Up

Tensions with police today can be traced back to 2008, when Vallejo became the first city of its size to file for bankruptcy in California.

That year, the city had some tough choices to make. When the city went bankrupt, police and firefighter salaries, pensions and overtime accounted for 74% of Vallejo’s $80 million general budget, according to a 2009 study by the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank.

The city could no longer afford its contracts with police and firefighters. Osby Davis, the mayor at the time, said negotiations with the unions reached the 11th hour before the city decided to file for bankruptcy.

"It had an impact on the entire city, not just the police department," said Davis, who served as Vallejo mayor for 10 years. The city lost employees as a result. At the police department, staffing for officers went from 126 to 77, he said.

"We stopped putting any money into our streets and roads, no money into infrastructure, no raises for any employees," Davis said. "We were just ... in dire straits."

Citywide, businesses closed and people lost their homes. At the police department, there was an exodus of police officers, which put additional pressures on the ones who stayed.

"We had to pick up the slack and the duties of others that were no longer present," said retired VPD Sgt. Brent Garrick, who had several jobs throughout his 30-year career with the department.

During the most dire years, Garrick was juggling more than one job at once. Officers began putting in a lot of overtime, he said.

"And so you didn't have a consistency and continuity within the department, and that produced a situation where, you know, I'd kind of describe it as a perfect storm," he said. "You don't have a good sense of direction, policy, procedure."

Vallejo police officers at a City Council meeting.
Vallejo police officers at a City Council meeting. (Ericka Cruz Guevarra/KQED)

The city had less money to send officers to training outside of the department, Garrick said. Before bankruptcy, the department required its officers to attend firearms training upward of six times a year — significantly more than the state standard, he said. But budget cuts meant fewer trips to the range, said Garrick. Officers began to worry that the lack of training was creating a liability for the city.

Then, in 2011, Officer James Lowell Capoot was shot and killed in the line of duty.

"I remember hearing some of the conversations: 'Wow, you know, look what the city is doing to us, man they're gonna get someone killed,' " Garrick said. "And sure enough, in 2011, that came to fruition, and people were really impacted by that and hurt by that.

"And it was a very turbulent time, and almost painful to even think about, because as a result a lot of people feel that, you know, officers were out there on a killing spree, and that was so far from the truth."

The Bay's Series on Vallejo Police Shootings
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The next year, however, Vallejo experienced the deadliest year of police shootings in the last 14 years. In 2012, the city budgeted for about 85 police officers but Garrick said there were only around 76 cops patrolling the city, an all-time low for the department.

The staffing levels had a direct impact on officers in the field. There were fewer officers to call for backup. Garrick said that put officers in scary situations — often alone.

"You can imagine there was a fear factor that was going on," he said. "Because the reality is you know we don't know what's behind that closed door."

At the time, the department pointed to skyrocketing crime rates. Crimes did increase, almost 10 percent from the year before.

But Vallejo, even with its smaller population, still had more shootings in 2012 than big Bay Area cities also dealing with high crime rates. That year, Oakland had one fatal officer-involved shooting, and San Francisco had two. In Vallejo, there were six.

Vallejo hasn't had a year of police shootings that bad since then. So what makes this moment — when activists are showing up at City Hall to protest police violence again — different in Vallejo?

'The Only Way to Not See It Is to Close Your Eyes'

Melissa Nold, an attorney with the Law Offices of John Burris and a Vallejo native, said police body camera and bystander video has changed everything. Nold and her group have represented the families of people shot by Vallejo police in lawsuits against the city and the police department.

"It's changing because now you have this objective thing," Nold said. "So I think people are willing to say: You know what, they haven't been as forthcoming as we would like them to have been in the past."

David Harrison (center) at a Vallejo City Council meeting on June 25, 2019.
David Harrison (center) at a Vallejo City Council meeting on June 25, 2019. (Ericka Cruz Guevarra/KQED)

Videos have played critical roles in the public's response to the police killings of people like Oscar Grant in Oakland, Eric Garner in New York and Walter Scott in North Charleston. They've led to a cultural awakening nationwide to the way black and brown people are disproportionately impacted by police violence.

Nold said that awakening is happening in Vallejo with residents. But city leaders aren't acting quickly enough.

"How do you not see the problem? The only way to not see it is to close your eyes," said Nold.

Greg Nyhoff, Vallejo's city manager, said the city is conducting risk analyses of its fire and police departments. The city hired the California-based consultant OIR Group to review the police department.

"I want to hear from the OIR Group on their expert observations before I make any statement or come to any conclusions regarding the extent of needed improvements," Nyhoff wrote in an email to KQED.

At a June City Council meeting, Nyhoff told councilors that the number of police calls compared to the number of use-of-force incidents in each of the last three years don't show a use-of-force problem in Vallejo.

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In 2016, for example, Nyhoff said there were more than 69,000 calls made to Vallejo police. The same year, there were 150 use-of-force incidents.

"Those don’t seem like there’s excessive use of force, or a lot of use of force in our community," he said. "That is such a tiny number when you think of how many times our officers interact with the public."

Beyond the Shootings

Nold said problems with policing in Vallejo are costing the city — and taxpayers — money.

The city of Vallejo was paying so much in legal settlements related, in part, to cases against its police department that it impacted its relationship with the California Joint Powers Risk Management Authority — an agency that has effectively served as an insurance company for the city for about three decades.

But by 2017, documents from the authority show that Vallejo had become a liability. In a December 2017 meeting, the agency discussed how Vallejo’s losses are "large and disproportionate compared to the other members."

The Vallejo City Council meets on June 25, 2019.
The Vallejo City Council meets on June 25, 2019. (Ericka Cruz Guevarra/KQED)

Nyhoff said the Authority planned to charge more for its insurance because of “a lack of risk management oversight and accountability generally." The city left that group and joined another insurance pool.

"How can they approve these multimillion-dollar settlements and never ever for one second look in the mirror and go, ‘Hey what's going on?' " said Dan Russo, a criminal defense attorney in Vallejo since 1978. In 2018, one of his clients settled a case against the police department for $2.5 million.

"Are we just unlucky? Are we just having a bad run of luck? Or is there some fundamental, basic problem that is more transcendent than a bad apple?"

Russo said city leaders aren’t living up to their obligation and responsibility to hold its police officers accountable — and it's not just when it comes to police shootings. There have also been allegations of harassment, false arrests, intimidation and racial profiling.

"Those calls I get every day," said Melissa Nold, who sees these calls as examples of a department that is afraid of its community.

Brent Garrick, the retired Vallejo police officer, is also a Vallejo native. He said being from the city has served him well in his career, because officers who don't understand the communities they serve carry around a certain level of fear. By the time Garrick left the department, he said just a few officers had gone to school or grew up in Vallejo, or had families in Vallejo.

Nold said that kind of intimacy with the community is a matter of life or death.

"Just from a psychological perspective, it's very difficult to kill people that you know," Nold said.

The Search for a New Police Chief

Vallejo Police Chief Andrew Bidou retired in June, and the city is looking for its next chief. The city has held at least one community forum to get input from residents about what they want from their next chief.

"What I have heard is the public wants a chief who is a good listener, who cares about this community and who is proud to represent the Vallejo Police Department as a leader," Nyhoff, the city manager, said in an email.

"They also want someone who is a communicator and will get out in the public to talk about tough issues, learn about their problems and bring ideas to the table to collaborate with our community and unite us in the common goals of public safety. They are also looking for accountability from Department leadership and tough — even if unpopular — decisions."

Others have been showing up to City Hall, making their case for transparency and accountability.

In June, Alicia Saddler addressed the City Council, saying she wants to prevent what happened to her brother, Angel Ramos — who was shot and killed by a Vallejo police officer in 2017 — from happening to anyone else.

"If you bring the right chief in, things can change. And our loved ones can get the justice, and nobody else’s family will have to feel the pain that me and all these other families have to feel," she said.

This story was reported and produced by KQED's local news podcast, The Bay. Click the "listen" button above to hear the episode.

Subscribe to The Bay on any of your favorite podcast apps to hear more local, Bay Area stories like this one. New episodes are released Monday, Wednesday and Friday at 3 a.m.  Find The Bay on Apple PodcastsSpotifyStitcher, NPR One, or via Alexa

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