By Matthew Keys
The newspaper that covers Vallejo said it was prevented from attending a press conference held by attorneys representing the city’s police union last week, despite receiving an invitation to cover the event earlier in the week.
Last Thursday, the Vallejo Times-Herald said it believed the decision by the Vallejo Police Officers Association to deny it access to the press conference was “retribution” for publishing the address of the police union’s headquarters.
The address was in the invitation to the event and is publicly available on the union’s website, the newspaper said, something that Solano NewsNet was able to confirm this week. The press release for the briefing blamed Vallejo Police Chief Shawny Williams for creating an unfavorable work environment that led to the departure of numerous police officers over the last two years.
At the press conference, attorneys representing the union revealed members had issued a no confidence vote last December and transmitted a letter to City Manager Mike Malone charging Williams with a number of issues, including his alleged failure to implement nearly four dozen recommendations to improve the agency; for a perceived lack of care of the health, safety or well-being of officers; and for purported deception toward the city council, members of the news media and the public.
“Documentation and information is available to support these allegations, and we are prepared to meet with you and the City Attorney as soon as possible,” the letter sent to Malone on December 28 read.
Last week, Solano NewsNet reached out to a representative of the union to ask if any of those documents had been given to city officials, and if they could be forwarded to a reporter for review. No one from the union responded to that message.
Earlier in the month, a union representative sent an unsolicited e-mail to Solano NewsNet after reviewing an interview conducted by this news organization with Chief Williams on the topic of trust within the community and his own department.
“We believe you asked a very important question of Chief Williams that he, as always, failed to answer, blamed others and spouted several hallow buzzwords,” the representative said. “We have additional information/specific examples for you if you are interested in a story about his failed leadership, incompetence as a Chief and failure to follow the law and our contract.”
The representative encouraged Solano NewsNet to “reach out if you are interested,” but did not respond to a follow-up email sent later that day.
The Vallejo police union has had a fitful and complicated relationship with the news media in recent years, particularly after the startup not-for-profit news outlet Open Vallejo revealed some police officers engaged in a ritual to mark fatal shootings of civilians by bending the tips of their badges. The report cast the police department in a negative light at a time when public scrutiny of law enforcement agencies was already heavy due to several high-profile shootings involving civilians, some of whom were unarmed.
In late 2020, a representative of the Vallejo police union sent a threatening email to San Francisco Chronicle columnist Otis Taylor after he announced his decision to join a newspaper in Atlanta. Taylor had spent several years at the Chronicle covering Vallejo as part of his beat; articles on alleged abusive behavior by police officers there were among some of the many stories he authored.
“We will warn our Georgia colleagues of your impending arrival,” the e-mail, which Taylor published, said. Taylor responded by calling it a “thinly-veiled threat” and by accusing police in Vallejo of having “an adversarial relationship with the truth.”
An attorney representing the police union later told KTVU (Channel 2) that the e-mail was penned by Michael Nichelini, the union’s president. The attorney apologized on behalf of the union, the television station said. Nichelini was later fired from the police department, but remains the police union’s president.
The decision to block the Times-Herald from attending the press conference appears to continue a pattern of the police union inviting reporters from news outlets that are willing to regurgitate talking points without scrutiny. Numerous television stations were allowed to cover the event; one, KRON-TV, spent a significant amount of time regurgitation union talking points while offering less coverage of the city’s perspective — and did not mention the officer-involved shootings or the badge-bending controversy at all.
The newspaper, on the other hand, offered a deeper dive into the union’s concerns by scrutinizing it against the actions of police officers there, and was apparently punished for their act of journalism.
David Loy, the legal director of the First Amendment Coalition, says police unions are private organizations that can legally admit or deny entrance to a press conference or other event, based on any criteria or none at all. But as a practical matter, Loy said it benefits the union and the public to allow full and fair coverage of police-related events.
“They’re doing a disservice to the public by picking and choosing who to cover them,” Loy said in a phone interview with Solano NewsNet on Monday. “When you’re a union that represents people who hold guns and badges, I think, arguably, you’re held to a higher standard of transparency.”
Thomas Gase, a city beat reporter who published the Times Herald’s story on Friday, declined to comment on Monday. He referred inquiries to his editor, Jack Bungart, who has not yet returned a request for comment.
The Vallejo Times-Herald is owned by the Denver-based MediaNews Group. It operates as a sister publication to the Vacaville Reporter, the Woodland Daily Democrat and the Bay Area News Group, which includes the San Jose Mercury News, the East Bay Times and the Marin Independent Journal.
This article originally appeared on Solano NewsNet, an independent news service covering Solano County, California. Republished with permission.