, May 23, 2022

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Vallejo community expresses distrust of police during DOJ listening session

  •   3 min reads
Vallejo community expresses distrust of police during DOJ listening session

VALLEJO - The California Department of Justice got confirmation Monday night that the local community in Vallejo doesn’t trust its police department.

About 50 people showed up to participate in a virtual listening session hosted by Jensen Hughes, a consulting firm retained by the DOJ to help gather information on how to improve the relationship between the community and the Vallejo Police Department.

Community members were divided into breakout groups each facilitated by a representative from Jensen Hughes. Facilitators asked the community to answer a series of questions, like what are the strengths and weaknesses of the department, what are your impressions of the department, and what recommendations do you have for the department in delivering service to your community?

Following 45 minutes in the smaller sessions, the participants came back together with each facilitator relaying the information presented in their respective group.

“They are very frustrated,” said Chad McGinty, a facilitator of one group.

McGinty said his participants didn’t have anything positive to say about the police force but he noted that “the community is going to see this through, they aren’t going anywhere.”

His group thought that the police department spins stories to protect themselves, picks and chooses who they are going to serve, and is very defensive when criticized.

McGinty added that there is a belief that “corruption runs through the city government and police department.”

Other observations mentioned included slow response times by officers, a lack of accountability and transparency, an unwillingness from the department to improve its standing in the community, and a perception that Vallejo only hires the “bottom of the barrel” police officers.

Another facilitator said her group felt the Vallejo Police Officers’ Association uses intimidation to garner political support and strengthen its position. In addition, the city’s leadership was perceived as weak, allowing the police department to exploit silence from City Hall.

The same facilitator said her group felt there is an “us versus them” mentality within the police department.

The OIR Group, a third-party consultant tasked with investigating the culture within the department, previously concluded that there was a breakdown between the community and its police force.

“Much of the Department seems to have an aggrieved perspective toward local politicians, the media, and its critics in the activist and legal communities,” a May 2020 report prepared by the OIR Group stated.

“It becomes easy in such circumstances to perceive even the most fair-minded critiques from outsiders as attacks, and to let the less fair-minded ones become a breeding ground for defensiveness and resentment,” it added.

Vallejo brought in the OIR Group around mid-2019 following several high-profile incidents involving the city’s police department. Six Vallejo police officers fired 55 rounds at Willie McCoy, while he was asleep in his car while parked in a Taco Bell drive-thru. McCoy was struck by more than 30 bullets and died at the scene.

Debra Kirby, project lead with Jensen Hughes, said the 45 recommendations presented by OIR Group are being used to reform the department. Kirby pointed to the Vallejo Police Chief Shawny Williams changing departmental policy regarding body-worn cameras. Williams ordered that officers “shall” turn on their cameras when responding to calls for service. The policy previously stated that officers “should” turn the cameras on in those situations.

Monday’s listening session comes almost two weeks after the Vallejo Police Department held a virtual town hall meeting to “discuss crime prevention, community policing and listen to your concerns.”

Williams only took four questions after participants were divided into groups to discuss their concerns. Members of Williams’ chief advisory board or command staff moderated the smaller sessions.

Discussions centered on gun violence, illegal dumping, homelessness and sex work, while topics like use of force by officers were not mentioned.  

Neither members of the city nor police department spoke during Monday’s listening session.

Vallejo approved an agreement with the state DOJ on June 5, 2020, to reform the department. Approval of the agreement came three days after San Francisco resident Sean Monterrosa was shot and killed by a Vallejo officer outside a local Walgreens during a night of unrest.

Monterrosa’s death was the fourth fatal encounter between the department and community in as many years. The agreement runs from June 9, 2020, through June 9, 2023.

Kirby said the DOJ participated as note takers in the breakout groups.

She further said Jensen Hughes and the DOJ had already been in Vallejo soliciting input from larger groups. He said the information gathering will continue as they visit the city on Nov. 15.

“Please, recognize, this is not a one and done,” said Kirby.

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