VPD in Crisis

June 4, 2019

Mayor Sampayan and Councilmembers:
Introduction


We, Voices of Vallejo, join with the families of the men whose lives have been taken, other victims of police misconduct by the VPD, and the organizations seeking major changes at the VPD, to demand justice and immediate police reform in Vallejo.

For too many years, the VPD has been a stain on the city. Federal judges and mediators, juries, risk managers, other cities in the large municipal insurance pool that Vallejo was in for decades, many Vallejoans, and specialized lawyers all saw the serious problems. The longstanding pattern and practice of police misconduct has engulfed many individuals, families and communities.

It's unlikely that when the City Manager was hired a year and one-half ago that policing was identified as a city priority. The city cannot continue to approve by inaction repeated acts of misconduct.

Voices of Vallejo's demands were set forth in the Sunday Times-Herald letter to the editor, "Police in Crisis." We have supplemented our demands in this letter. VPD's warrior, us versus them, cowboy, code of silence and cover-up culture and the long history of deliberate indifference of the city to the pattern and practice of misconduct of the VPD must end. Neglect and inattention cannot continue, while residents are unnecessarily injured, killed, and intimidated and scarce city dollars are squandered.

We demand that Vallejo adopt best practices in community policing, tactical de-escalation, citizen oversight (city hall, council and VPD oversight have failed), openness, so that citizens can easily access VPD policies and general orders, a culture that invites questions, criticism and praise, and goals that aim far higher than mere legal compliance. We demand a new culture in which the VPD seeks to protect all from harm, including themselves, as well as those who are in crisis, agitated or irrational. Cooperation is ideal, but the reality is that it often does not occur. And we recognize that in rare situations the police should use force and that injuries and death can result. We recognize that officers need to have warrior skills.

We value the safety of officers and seek the very best screening, training, equipment and supervision. Unfortunately, the community and VPD do not agree on the core values of policing. The VPD seems to believe that noncooperation justifies immediate violence on its part. Like juries and risk managers, we reject that mentality and culture.

No Labor Contract Until VPOA Consents to External, Independent Investigation

We will no longer tolerate the pattern of misconduct, unlawful use of force, or a culture of impunity in the VPD. This letter will reach you in advance of the closed session discussion of the VPOA collective bargaining agreement. Based on the suffering of victims of police misconduct, the dissatisfaction of a large portion of the community, the threat to the city of Vallejo's solvency posed by the viral videos, imminent and pending suits, we expect the city council to extract, before approving a new labor contract, written consent from the VPOA to a full and audit of the VPD's practice and pattern of misconduct, use of force, use of body cameras (and lack of use) discipline (and lack thereof), supervision, training and policies of the VPD by the state Department of Justice. Professionals and well-managed cities welcome audits and investigations. They are committed to improvement.

Only a public report following an independent investigation will enable the council and public to make informed decisions about changes. The VPD is not the City Manager's or council's, it is the community's.

Many in the community have lost faith in the integrity and soul of the VPD. Of course, there are good officers and many perform well in many stressful, complex situations. And we rely on officers to respond to and deal with fatal auto accidents, family violence, completed and attempted suicides, violent crime, the abuse and exploitation of vulnerable persons, mental health and substance abuse crises, and the list goes on and on. It is a hard and sometimes dangerous job. We want the very best officer wellness services, which Stockton now has.

Vallejo is in crisis. The VPD's effectiveness and our safety are dependent upon community trust and collaboration. That has been undermined by a pattern and practice of misconduct.

Vallejo Denies That A Crisis Exists

Vallejo's leaders refuse to see what federal judges and magistrates, juries, the cities in Vallejo's municipal insurance pool, specialized lawyers, the regional, national and international media, and citizens, families and communities see plainly. The Vallejo PD is failing to meet minimal legal standards again and again. No one listens. There are many examples.

1. Chief Town Hall: At the police chief recruitment town hall on May 23rd the disconnect between the city and community was obvious. First, Dr. Piotrowski had to point out mid-way through the meetings that the statements reported out by each table were not being transcribed in the "official" minutes of staff. In other words, instances of police abuse, characterizations such as "cowboy culture" were not captured, until she complained. Denial and avoidance of the truth will not work any longer. Applicants for the permanent chief's job must know what challenges exist.

2. City Hall's Notice of the Pervasive Problems: At the town hall, the City Manager stated that until five weeks before the town hall (mid-April 2019) police issues had not been a significant issue for the city. Five weeks? It took years to incur over $7m in liability settlements and verdicts (and that number does not include massive defense costs). The story about Vallejo's massive payments for a pattern and practice of misconduct was televised on KTVU in February 2019 three months before the town hall. City staff had knowledge of the shocking payouts each time a new settlement or verdict required a payment. No one can say that Vallejo was not aware of massive liability payments, new insurance costs, or excessive shootings. And for a very long time the media has alerted the city, region, state and world that Vallejo has a police crisis.

According to KTVU and city files, Vallejo's legal costs had been so much higher than those of the other agencies in the municipal insurance pool that Vallejo was in for 31 years, that the other cities forced Vallejo to leave the pool. We do not believe that any other agency was ever asked to leave. Which city was the only one to oppose removal from the pool? Vallejo.

Now Vallejo is part of a high risk pool. The insurance deductible is far higher and the limits are lower. The high costs to the city of membership in the high risk pool and multiple liability payouts are a scandal.

The public was never told.  The media had to dig for the truth.  If they had not uncovered the facts, we would have never known.  Why? How can we trust the city on any issue relating to the VPD?

3. Highly publicized police misconduct in early 2019:  Willie McCoy was killed by Vallejo police on February 9th, three and one-half months before the chief recruitment town hall. From the beginning it has been clear that Willie McCoy did not need to die. Many officers had ample time to maximize time and distance to reduce the risk of a shoot/ don't shoot crisis. They had the opportunity to seek cover.

One of the officers can be heard on the video acknowledging the unreasonable risk to Willie McCoy of remaining up against the driver's window. The officer stated words to the effect of "If he moves, you know what to do." In short, the officers were creating a crisis that would result in the shredding of Mr. McCoy. But, there was no awareness of a policing problem until mid-April according to City Hall?

In January 2019, Adrian Burrell was assaulted by a VPD officer for filming the officer's detention of his cousin in his driveway. Mr. Burrell is a Marine veteran and has been accepted to graduate school at Stanford. The Bay Area was saturated with coverage in January with stories that included the video of the vicious attack on Mr. Burrell for exercising his right to videotape the VPD. The city cannot claim that police issues are new. It has ignored them.

Carlos Yescas case attracted wide media attention in March. A VPD lieutenant roughed up Mr. Yescas, after handcuffing him in a store parking lot, while Mr. Yescas' 12-year-old brother filmed the misconduct and pleaded with the lieutenant, "Why are you doing this?" again and again.

The pattern of misconduct has gone on for as long as anyone can remember. No one at city hall noticed the problem until mid-April, according to the City Manager. Meanwhile, the Bay Area and nation have been asking why Vallejo is indifferent to the policing of its city.

4. Community Protests and Council Meetings: Had families and their allies not appeared at council meetings, the city would have resorted to its default position of "See no evil, hear no evil." The families have awakened the community. We honor their courage in the face of intimidation by the heavily armed VPD officers, including officers involved in shootings and police misconduct.

5. VPOA FB Posts: Something else has happened in the five weeks before the chief town hall that should have concerned the Council and City Manager. The VPOA, which has every right to post its views, has made it clear that it does not share Vallejo's values. At its FB page it has mocked:

1. The value of de-escalation;

2. The illegal release to the media of a police report about a critic of the SFPD;

3. The right of citizens to videotape police incidents.

6. Vallejo's Use of Force is 98/100 in California: We now have a comprehensive study that compares the use of force in California's 100 largest agencies. How did Vallejo do? 98th percentile for use of force - at the bottom. The rate of shootings is also near the bottom for the period studied.

The City's Actions Reflect Denial and Avoidance

1.Use of Force Training: The city organized a "Community Engagement" forum on use of force. We want officers to be safe. They need regular training. It is perishable. It is useful for the community to know about, question, support and criticize how city employees are trained.

According to one attendee the video training showed how to resolve an incident with a firearm. Officers should be required to receive de-escalation training and to "qualify" or demonstrate de-escalation competence or not be allowed to be on patrol until they show mastery of basic de-escalation skills, just as with their firearms. For the public, tactical de-escalation that uses time, distance, and cover and communication skills that avoid injury to all is the highest goal. For the community riding a bike without a headlamp is not worth a pursuit and combat and death. A retreat or avoidance of the pursuit altogether are preferred. We do not claim that the subject is free of fault. It just isn't worth the lethal use of force to compel compliance in some situations.

Excellent de-escalation training is available through Chris Voss, a former FBI SWAT and hostage negotiator. His class is entitled, "Tactical De-Escalation.” See his YouTube videos.

2. Selection of Chief Jordan: The second step taken was retention of Chief Jordan by the City Manager. This decision was repeatedly attacked at the chief recruitment town hall. The criticisms arise from the unrebutted media reports that the federal monitor was so dissatisfied with Chief Jordan's refusal to implement required reforms in the Oakland PD that he was about to dismiss him, when Chief Jordan suddenly resigned. Thus, Chief Jordan impeded reforms in the Oakland PD.

We have no confidence in Chief Jordan's skills at designing and implementing reforms. His selection was approved by the VPOA (some of our most sued officers transferred here from Oakland and know Chief Jordan). At the VPOA FB page our officers collectively declared,
"Welcome Chief Jordan," once the public learned of his selection. The VPOA knows that Chief Jordan is not a change agent. How did this happen? At the town hall the City Manager offered no explanation for his decision. Is silence again the city's strategy for handling police problems?

Our City Manager stated at the May 23rd town hall that police issues were not on his radar until mid-April. It is obvious that the council would rather have him do almost anything other than improve the VPD. He is very busy.

Why wouldn't the city want to hear from the community in a series of forums about VPD problems to guide it in the chief selection process? At the one town hall about the new chief recruitment the community’s experiences and perceptions were excluded from notes, as though they had not been spoken.

The Council and City Manager need help from the community. We do not normally expect the City Manager and Council to closely and continuously oversee the VPD. They are too busy. They must trust the police chief and his leadership team. That is not possible here, as shown by liability payments, new viral videos, intimidation, and the lack of accountability and transparency. The problems are too deep-seated. There are many responsible and smart residents ready to help by studying and recommending best practices.

In other communities, police task forces have been created to study best practices in citizen oversight, community policing and community engagement. The task force would research what policies, supervision, and training are in place elsewhere and it would interview experts and leaders in the core subjects. The council and City Manager are overwhelmed with other work. A 21-member task force would include a broad cross-section of our community. Perhaps we could invite Cat Brooks, a respected expert, and family representatives to participate. Based on community interest and many new developments since the city’s last police task force, the benefits for the city would be large. The work could be completed in nine months. While this work is done, an external investigation could be completed. This would focus the efforts of the task force, but many issues are in plain sight.

3. The proposed federal DOJ community engagement strategy is premature: The vast majority of the 80-100 people at the May 23rd town hall strongly disagree with the decision to invite community engagement experts to assist the city of Vallejo at this time. How can there be improved community relations when there has been no assessment of the many problems and the community has not been asked to describe the problems? Much work must be done in order for the community to trust that it finally knows the depth of the problems.

Concealing the insurance data and loss history for police misconduct, delaying the release of police videos, accepting the lack of accountability (we are informed that the officer who beat Mr. Hall, a mentally ill man shouting, “I am the police. I am God," with a flashlight in the median strip near a north Vallejo Valero station has transferred to another agency, even after the city entered into a civil settlement with Mr. Hall), and preventing public access to general orders and policies that other cities post online compel a comprehensive investigation by the state DOJ. The state DOJ's professionals will fully investigate the issues and they will be independent.

Vallejo claims at its web site that it is the gold standard for public participation. We need to see that value upheld, at last, before we can address the lack of police/ community trust. Thus far, Vallejo has shown no interest in public participation.

The city must not do things for and to us. It must do things with us, the community. For us to agree on the problems plaguing Vallejo, we must have a common set of facts, which can only be established through an independent investigation by the state DOJ.

4. Federal Court Order Highlights Vallejo's Policing Crisis: To underscore how dire the situation is, we direct your attention to a recent court order (we did a court search of pending cases against the VPD). One of the most conservative federal judges denied Vallejo's motion to dismiss a police misconduct case that involves a vicious beating in 2015. Federal judges see the fire burning here and have allowed plaintiffs in the pending case to prove that the policies and customs of the VPD are resulting in violations of constitutional rights. This is highly unusual and further proves that there is a police crisis here.

The court opinion is attached. The officer gave two wildly different accounts of what happened. The latter version was at least partly consistent with the multiple fractures suffered by the man who was arrested. But the officer elected to adopt his original statement (when his memory had to be better, he asserted), which is inconsistent with the injuries inflicted on the man arrested. The officer struck the plaintiff with so much violence and so many times that multiple fractures resulted and the officer's metal baton (asp) broke.

The city faces large damages in this case. Jurors will not condone the city's or officer's actions.

The judge highlighted the risk to the city: the officer's descriptions of the incident "appear to be at odds with the multiple fractures sustained by Joseph."

Under Monell, a city cannot be liable, as opposed to an individual officer, unless a city’s policies and customs have caused violations of the plaintiffs federal rights. The judge even allowed the victim to pursue a Monell claim (the city had urged the court to dismiss the Monell claim).

How did the plaintiffs show that a jury should decide whether the city is liable for unconstitutional policies and customs? The plaintiffs proved a stark contrast between the photographic and medical evidence and the plaintiffs injuries. VPD supervisory personnel who approved Plaintiffs' report failed to note "the obvious discrepancies between the officer’s version of events and the Plaintiffs injuries." This means that supervisors participated in the attempted cover-up.

Plaintiff further showed that neither officer activated their body cameras at the time of the altercation, but were "not disciplined or retrained on the importance of utilizing the tools available to document citizen contact, justify force, and/or secure criminal convictions." We now know of other cases where the body cameras have not been turned on when they should have been.

The viral videos involving certain officers, Mr. Burrell, the shootings, the violent detention of Willie McCoy’s 18-year-old petit cousin, and Mr. Yescas all guarantee ongoing litigation that will have a prodigious effect on the city's liability payouts and ability to join any risk pool. We are heading for a disaster.

The inaction and denial of a problem to date sends a message to potential chief candidates that the status quo is supported by city hall and the council. As evidenced at the chief town hall, the community demands major reforms.

Conclusion

For all of the reasons explained above, we demand:

1. That the city refuse to enter into a labor contract with the VPOA, until the VPOA consents, in writing, to a full audit and investigation of the VPD, by the state DOJ;

2. The immediate dismissal of Chief Jordan;

3. That the city recognize the humanity and dignity of the families whose loved ones were killed by a VPD officer and offer ten sessions of counseling at the city's expense (and more sessions, if the therapist requests authorization for more sessions relating to harm suffered from the loss of a loved one);

4. Immediate release of the Ronell Foster investigation report (Mr. Foster was killed a year ago. There can be no justification for withholding the investigation from the family);

5. Formation of a city task force that will study and make recommendations about best practices in policing, so that the council and City Manager will have the benefit of the community's research and recommendations before it in deciding how to reform policing in Vallejo (reliance on a single consultant, Chief Jordan, makes no sense).

In today’s paper, the City Manager asserts for the first time that the federal DOJ will assess best practices, use of force and other issues. We are tentatively pleased. Many in the community have been demanding that the city do precisely this. Under Attorney Generals Sessions and Barr, monitoring and reforming municipal police departments has not been a department priority. Because the city has never acknowledged the police crisis, we have little confidence that the scope of the problems is understood and will be conveyed accurately to outside investigators.

The community must be granted the right to provide the necessary background for any assessment or investigation. Until today, city had only claimed that the federal DOJ would assist in police/ community trust-building. We request clarification of precisely what will be done as a part of any external assessment.

The community demands a right to meaningfully participate in identifying best practices and reforms for the VPD.

We request copies of all records reflecting communications between the city of Vallejo„ councilmembers and staff with any state or federal office or agency regarding any investigation or assessment of the VPD;

6. That the city actively support and pursue implementation of a county-wide protocol for the investigation of critical incidents. VPD should not be investigating its own critical incidents. Vallejo, Vacaville, Fairfield and the County should enter into a mutual agreement to investigate each other's critical incidents and those of smaller agencies;

7. That at a regularly scheduled council meeting the city provide each year a summary of all liability payments by department for the previous year, along with documents relating to the cost, limits and self-insured retention for the city’s current liability insurance coverage. Notice of the report and summary shall be given at least ten days before the council meeting where the liability and insurance coverage report is to be given;

8. That in a further display of respect of the families and claimants in police misconduct cases (we recognize that not all claims are meritorious, but we urge outreach in all police cases) that the city engage in a series of private meetings once a lawyer has been retained to reach agreements on the early release of all police videos and audio recordings, personnel files, and investigative reports.

Some of these materials are not public records and appropriate confidentiality agreements can be entered into (the point is to treat the claimants the way we would like anyone close to any of us after a tragic loss). These meetings can be facilitated through a mutually agreed upon trained mediator. The city should pay the mediator's fees. The meetings should begin now. They may or may not lead to resolutions of claims. Transparency and timeliness are important, especially after a death. The presence of the riot squad in the council chamber is not acceptable. It is not fair to the families.

The city must listen and learn from the families' allegations what might have been done better and in appropriate cases admit its mistakes and repair to the extent it can through compensation of the families' losses.

9. The city's agreement with the additional demands in Sunday’s letter to the editor.

We look forward to actions by the city that satisfy these demands, along with those in the "Police in Crisis" Voices of Vallejo letter to the editor in Sunday's Times-Herald.

Respectfully submitted,

Voices of Vallejo