A San Francisco Bay Area city has proclaimed a public safety emergency declaration allowing staff to bypass normal channels to push through reforms involving a scandal-ridden department that is reeling from high crime rates, low morale and troubled community relations in the wake of shootings of minorities by police.
“Very brave step for all of us but it’s something that needed to be done,” Mayor Bob Sampayan said as the Vallejo City Council unanimously approved the motion Tuesday night.
City staff recommended the declaration, which allows the police chief and city manager to hire command staff and more quickly implement policy changes, although the city could risk litigation in doing so.
The council also passed a broader police reform proposal directing the city manager and police chief to beef up community policing, provide options for independent oversight and find ways to improve public trust and transparency.
The city of 120,000 people faces “a crisis of legitimacy and trust” that demands emergency action, said Vallejo spokeswoman Christina Lee before the meeting.
There have been more than 350 shootings and 22 homicides in the city this year, including an incident in August in which two people were killed and their 1-year-old shot.
At the same time, police face mounting criticism and fiscal liability over shootings and misconduct by officers. Lee says two dozen federal civil rights cases and more than a dozen tort claims are pending that could cost the city $50 million as well as higher insurance premiums.
Last month, Vallejo agreed to pay $5.7 million to the family of a man who was shot and killed by an officer after he was pulled over for a minor traffic infraction. In June, 22-year-old Sean Monterrosa was shot and killed by the officer who thought he had a gun when he did not.
Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, an organization that promotes best practices in policing, says he hasn’t heard of many cities declaring an emergency to address public safety. But it makes sense, he said.
“When you have something as serious as this, you need to act quickly and I think that’s what the city is saying, there’s a sense of urgency in what they need to do,” he said.
About 30 members of the public spoke during the meeting, which was held online because of COVID-19 safety concerns.
Some supported the plan as a way of reducing violence both in the streets and by police. But others said it was simply an effort to seize more power by local leaders and a Police Department they distrusted.
“The real emergency is police brutality and complete lack of transparency and accountability in our local government,” caller Melissa Smith said. “This is a department that continues to shoot unarmed Black and brown men.”
The Vallejo Police Officers’ Association had argued that an emergency declaration would be an illegal power grab. It said the police department simply needs to hire more officers by offering better wages. Vallejo has a little more than 100 sworn officers, which city staff agree is insufficient for the population.
Advocates of police reform are not persuaded that an emergency declaration will transform the department that has a longstanding reputation for violence, especially toward Black and Latino people.
“Where’s my magic wand?” Council member Katy Miessner asked before the vote.
Vallejo native and civil rights attorney Melissa Nold, who represents the families of people killed or harmed by police in Vallejo, said before the meeting that there’s no point in adding more command officers to the ranks if the department isn’t getting rid of bad officers.
“It’s sort of like putting paint over something that’s dry rotted,” she said. “It doesn’t change the culture of the department.”
Vallejo Police Chief Shawny Williams, who is Black, was hired in 2019, has pledged to make reforms recommended in May by an outside group commissioned by the city.
The OIR Group found that the 2008 fiscal crisis, which led to the city declaring bankruptcy, devastated the department and equipment remains notoriously old, salaries are below market and the workload demanding.