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State expands reforms to improve Calif. police department

New reforms include reviews of every incident where officers brandish a firearm, a policy that limits the use of “pretextual stops” and revised training intended to “limit the role of bias and prejudice”

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Photo/Vallejo Police Department

By Daniel Egitto

VALLEJO, Calif. — A weightier and more robust effort to reform the Vallejo Police Department — this time with a court of law to back it up — has arrived.

Stacking additional accountability and transparency policies on top of a partially completed list of 45 reforms, Attorney General Rob Bonta promised Monday to spend the next five years “correcting injustices, building trust and enhancing public safety for the people of Vallejo.”

The California Department of Justice has already spent over three years working to improve policing in the city, with limited success. But with Bonta’s announcement Monday, the state’s power to implement change has expanded.

Bonta announced that Vallejo has entered into an awaited “stipulated judgment” with the DOJ — a legally binding agreement filed in Solano County Superior Court. The new phase of oversight will include a new official: An “oversight and reform evaluator” who will help ensure that the promised improvements actually happen.

“The reforms laid out in the agreement are needed and necessary to continue healing the relationship between law enforcement and the community,” Bonta said. “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.”

Flanked by other city officials and police department leaders, Mayor Robert McConnell and Interim Police Chief Jason Ta vowed to support the latest attempt to improve Vallejo police officers’ actions and image.

“Police reform sustaining a change of daily culture is not easy,” McConnell said. “It is often said that culture will eat programming for breakfast. As we progressively and steadily make these changes, small and large, it will demand the full attention of the citizens of Vallejo, the state and indeed the world — all of whom are watching the Vallejo Police Department as we speak.”

What’s taking so long?

Three years ago, in June 2020, the Vallejo Police Department agreed to enter into a “collaborative review” with the DOJ.

Vallejo police had killed 19 people between 2010 and 2020, making the agency one of the deadliest in the state. At the city’s request, the OIR Group, a criminal justice consulting firm, compiled a list of 45 recommendations designed to improve the police department’s policies around use of force, accountability and related matters.

The city agreed to work with the DOJ to implement all of 45 of these changes over three years.

But many of the reforms never came. By the time the original agreement expired in June, Vallejo had implemented just 20 of the proposed policies —causing the state to announce in a statement to this newspaper that it would be continuing and expanding its review of the VPD.

Understaffing, inefficiency and talks with the Vallejo Police Officers’ Association drove delays, Ta said Monday.

“What we learned from the first three years of collaborative agreement was that you couldn’t put off something that you needed to do administratively because you had to handle something actively occurring,” he said. “So we know that. We know, moving forward, that we have to do everything at the same time.”

Especially in the beginning, Ta said, “none of us knew how this was supposed to look, how this was supposed to get done.” Police initially tried implementing reforms sequentially, beginning with the first of the 45 recommendations and working their way down. But they learned that many were tied together and “had to be completed at the same time.”

On top of that, reforms couldn’t be approved without the police department talking to its union.

“That might be characterized as a delay,” Ta said. “That is one step of the process that is time consuming. The entire process takes time.”

Bonta said it was his agency’s “hope and expectation” back in 2020 that all 45 reforms would be completed by this June. He declined to elaborate on Ta’s explanation for the delays.

What are the additional reforms?

Bonta’s office listed numerous reforms to be implemented in addition to the original 45:

  • Officers and supervisors will be held accountable if they fail to identify, adequately investigate or address uses of force that violate VPD policy. The department will refer potential use-of-force violations to its Professional Standards Division.
  • Police will “conduct an ongoing audit” of all incidents where police officers brandish guns or point them at members of the public.
  • The department will implement new policies to ensure that supervisors receive and respond to community feedback and remain objective in investigations.
  • The department will develop protocol for responding to calls involving mental-health crises and people with mental-health disabilities. The new policy will involve trained civilian responders.
  • Police will “develop a policy that defines and limits the use of pretextual stops.” These are traffic stops for minor offenses that police use to investigate vehicles for more major potential offenses like carrying illegal guns or drugs.
  • Police will “enhance and revise training” around investigatory traffic stops, aiming to limit the role of bias and prejudice.
  • Officers will not be able to conduct consent searches after detaining suspects “unless an officer reasonably suspects that the subject has contraband or evidence related to that detention.”
  • The Chief’s Advisory Board and yet-to-be-implemented Police Oversight and Accountability Commission will “continue to develop and amend significant policies that impact the community.”
  • The department will “enhance, promote and strengthen partnerships within the community.”
  • Police will “ensure stops, searches and seizures comply with the law.”
  • The agency will “commit to providing bias-free services and enforcing laws in a way that is professional, nondiscriminatory, fair and equitable.”

What about past incidents?

The city’s new agreement will affect only future incidents, not past ones. However, the Attorney General’s office will continue to play a role in investigating criminal misconduct regardless of when it happened.

“We’re here today talking about the stipulated judgment that’s been filed in Solano County Superior Court that is all about systems, practices, policies, procedures, training,” Bonta said. He said the new court order “is about forward-looking change, transformational change” — not reviewing previous misconduct.

Bonta’s office is currently investigating the death of Sean Monterrosa at the hands of a Vallejo police officer in 2020. The attorney general declined to comment on whether his agency is conducting investigations into any other officer-involved shootings in Vallejo.

What do city leaders think?

Ta gave a brief statement on his view of the new legal document.

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

McConnell, for his part, voiced full-throated support for the city and state employees who have “taken the time, under pressure, to reach what will likely become an historical document.” He called on the Vallejo Police Officers’ Association as well as all future council members to do the same.

“It is the goal of the city of Vallejo and the Vallejo Police Department to continue to build (on) the progress made to date, to strengthen our relationships and advance our efforts to build trust in the community,” he said.

City Manager Mike Malone and City Attorney Veronica Nebb also released statements in support of the latest legal development.

At its core, Bonta said the agreement is about “building and strengthening trust” between the people of Vallejo and their beleaguered police department.

“Californians are hurting,” he said. “Trust has been broken and it won’t be repaired overnight. But it can and it will be repaired if we all work together.”


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