California DOJ Lowers Hammer on Embattled Vallejo Police – Announced Deal ‘Step Toward Correcting Injustices’ and ‘Unconstitutional’ Policing

By Crescenzo Vellucci

The Vanguard Sacramento Bureau Chief

VALLEJO, CA – The California Attorney General Monday announced a deal—he called it a “stipulated judgment” and an “important step toward correcting injustices” —with the scandal-ridden Vallejo Police Department, plagued by a long history of racist policing, including unjustified police killings of residents.

California Attorney General Rob Bonta said the stipulated judgment with the city of Vallejo and the Vallejo Police Department (VPD) “continues and expands upon the reform work started under a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the DOJ and VPD” and “resolves DOJ’s complaint alleging the VPD engaged in a pattern and practice of unconstitutional conduct.”

Among the stipulations, the DOJ said the VPD must address “unreasonable force” charges, enhance and revise training with respect to investigatory stops, reiterating that race, color, ethnicity, national origin, religion, gender, gender identity, disability, or sexual orientation, prohibit officers from conducting consent searches in most cases, develop a policy for responding to calls involving people in mental health crisis, and provide ‘bias-free services’ and law enforcement.”

Bonta also added the city of Vallejo and VPD “will undertake a comprehensive set of actions—to be led by an Oversight and Reform Evaluator—to promote public safety, reduce unlawful uses of force, eliminate racial and identity disparities, strengthen accountability systems, continue to increase support for officers, and protect the statutory and constitutional rights of the people of Vallejo.”

Civil rights lawyers who have sued Vallejo over the decades were cautiously optimistic.

“For decades, the Vallejo Police Department has trampled on its citizens’ Constitutional rights with near impunity, its only accountability coming from civil rights cases.  Vallejo Officers who have beaten and slaughtered people have been allowed to continue being Vallejo police officers,” said Ben Nisenbaum of Burris Nisenbaum Curry & Lacy (BNCL).

John Burris commented, “Change is hard, and the leadership must hold officers accountable; otherwise, the consent decree will not be worth the paper that it is written…Attorney General Bonta and The City of Vallejo are to be commended for reaching a stipulated consent decree regarding Vallejo PD’s systemic History of police misconduct.”

Burris added, “Having sued the police department for over 20 years for their treatment of African Americans, I am encouraged that better days can be ahead (but) it will take an unweaving commitment by city leaders and police leadership to implement the changes. The history of consent decrees nationally has demonstrated there is general resistance among the rank and file, including union leadership.”  

Nisenbaum added, “Now, with a consent decree between the city and the attorney general, it looks like that horrific era might be History.  We certainly hope so, but it all depends on how thorough the consent decree is and how committed the city and the attorney general are to the long road ahead in fully rebuilding this department.”

“Maintaining trust between our law enforcement and the communities they serve is a foundational part of public safety,” said Bonta. “Today’s agreement with the city of Vallejo and its police department is another important step toward correcting injustices, building trust, and enhancing public safety for the people of Vallejo. We cannot afford to be complacent. 

“The reforms laid out in the agreement are needed and necessary to continue healing the relationship between law enforcement and the community. It’s past time the people of Vallejo have a police department that listens and guarantees that their civil rights are protected. My office is committed to staying engaged, working collaboratively with VPD and the city and ensuring a fair, thorough, and transparent process.”

Vallejo Mayor Robert McConnell said, “The City of Vallejo is encouraged by the progress made to date by our staff and the Department.  We are optimistic about the continuation of our collaboration with the California Department of Justice and its team in the next phase of this important work. We have made significant progress but there is still more to do.

McConnell, elected several years ago with a progressive agenda but walked right into the middle of misconduct by Vallejo PD, added, “The City Council is unanimously committed to seeing our efforts through to conclusion. It is the goal of the City of Vallejo and the VPD to continue to build on the progress made to date, to strengthen our relationships and advance our efforts to build trust with the community.”

The DOJ explained they had entered into a MOU in June 2020 with the city of Vallejo, and VPD “for VPD to institute a comprehensive modernized policing plan that included implementing 45 reform recommendations made by VPD’s expert consultants, as well as additional review from DOJ to expand upon and add any additional recommendations needed to modernize VPD’s current policies and practices, assist with implementation of the recommendations, and independently evaluate VPD’s compliance with the recommendations.”

DOJ entered the fray to reform VPD’s work after a series of, it says, “several high-profile uses of force, including a number of officer-involved shootings.” There were also other police abuses including vigilante, racist “gangs.”

Former Police Captain John Whitney reported allegations of badge bending to the city. Officers were allegedly bending down the corners of their badges following police shootings they were involved in. He received about $1 million in a whistleblower lawsuit.

“These officers were celebrating in a gang-like fashion the murder and death of Black and brown people in the city of Vallejo,” said civil rights attorney Adante Pointer last year.

According to OpenVallejo, an unaffiliated news outlet, officers involved in fatal shootings marked (killing incidents) with backyard barbecues and were initiated into a “secretive clique” that included curving one of the tips of their seven-point sterling silver badge. 

The outlet said it spoke with more than 20 current and former government officials and reviewed records and hundreds of photographs taken before and after fatal shootings. Two officers named in the report denied having bent badges, with one telling Open Vallejo it was a “lie.”

Vallejo has been in the spotlight for its high number of fatal police shootings in recent years—18 since 2010—compared with other California cities.

The DOJ said when the MOU with Vallejo expired in June, the VPD was only in compliance with a little over half of the 45 agreed-upon recommendation, and DOJ “concluded that VPD failed to uniformly and adequately enforce the law, based in part, because of defective or inadequate policies, practices, and procedures.”

DOJ said it is currently seeking a “judgment with court oversight requiring VPD and the city of Vallejo to implement the remaining reforms, and to implement additional reforms addressing civilian complaints, bias-free policing, stops, searches, seizures and arrest, and ongoing oversight of these reforms.”

The DOJ Monday said the sides have agreed to a “comprehensive five-year plan to address the numerous areas that need improvement and modernization to bring VPD into alignment with contemporary best practices and ensure constitutional policing.”

VPD, added DOJ, “will implement the remaining recommendations that have not been completed from the 45 Recommendations contained in the May 2020 report (and) under the agreement VPD will implement additional recommendations, including:

“Address unreasonable force by holding officers and supervisors accountable for not identifying, adequately investigating, or addressing force that is unreasonable or otherwise contrary to VPD policy; and refer uses of force that may violate law or VPD’s use of force policy to their Professional Standards Division (internal affairs) for further investigation or review.

“Enhance, promote, and strengthen partnerships within the community, to continue engaging constructively with the community to ensure collaborative problem-solving and bias-free policing, and to increase transparency and community confidence in VPD.

“Utilize its Chief’s Advisory Board (CAB) and the Police Oversight and Accountability Commission (POAC), to continue to develop and amend significant policies that impact the community, including to its use of force policies, community-policing strategy and policies, bias-free policing policies, and civilian complaint policies.

“Develop a policy that defines and limits the use of pretextual stops.

“Enhance and revise training with respect to investigatory stops, reiterating that race, color, ethnicity, national origin, religion, gender, gender identity, disability, or sexual orientation are not to be used as a factor in establishing reasonable suspicion or probable cause, except as part of actual and credible descriptions of a specific suspect.

“Prohibit officers from conducting consent searches during consensual encounters. Officers may not conduct a consent search after detaining a subject unless an officer reasonably suspects that the subject has contraband or evidence related to that detention, and the consent must be documented on body camera footage or a signed consent form.

“Ensure stops, searches, and seizures comply with the law, as part of an effective overall crime prevention strategy that does not contribute to counterproductive tension with the community.

“Commit to providing bias-free services and enforcing laws in a way that is professional, nondiscriminatory, fair, and equitable.

“Work with the Evaluator to develop a policy and protocol for responding to calls involving a person in mental health crisis or suffering from a mental health disability. The policy and protocol will include utilizing professional civilian staff, who are trained professionals in responding to mental health crises, to respond when appropriate and available.

“Develop and implement policies, guidelines, and training to ensure all supervisors and managers: Exercise appropriate supervisory oversight, conduct objective and impartial investigations, are held accountable for meeting agency standards and expectations, engage with and listen to community feedback, incorporate community feedback when able and appropriate, develop and evaluate policing strategies and tactics reflective of contemporary best community policing practices and conduct an ongoing audit of incidents where an officer points a firearm at a member of the public or brandishes a firearm in the presence of a member of the public to ensure that its officers are not drawing a firearm solely based on the mere existence of a potential risk (e.g., public contact, pedestrian/traffic stop).”

Vallejo officials were quick to issue statements in support of the DOJ actions.

“The Vallejo Police Department is committed to the completion of the remaining original recommendations and the additional recommendations under the new Agreement,” said Vallejo Police Department Interim Chief Jason Ta.

Ta added, “Improvements will be made to new and existing policies and procedures, which we are confident will increase accountability, efficiency, transparency, and community partnerships while at the same time improving relationships with the public and building mutual trust and respect from the community we serve.”

“This Agreement is a continuation of the reform process Vallejo Police Department started three years ago,” said Vallejo City Manager Michael Malone. “City management and Vallejo Police Department are committed to engaging the community and dedicating the resources needed to ensure this ongoing effort is successful within the terms of our new Agreement.”

“During the past three years of the City’s collaborative agreement with the California Department of Justice we have fostered a positive working relationship that has produced significant results,” said Vallejo City Attorney Veronica Nebb.  

About The Author

Disclaimer: the views expressed by guest writers are strictly those of the author and may not reflect the views of the Vanguard, its editor, or its editorial board.

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