Calif. city declares state of emergency due to shortage of police officers
Potential future actions include judgment calls on extending officers’ shifts, pay retired officers to perform certain tasks or call in officers from other agencies
By Daniel Egitto
Times-Herald, Vallejo, Calif.
VALLEJO, Calif. — Vallejo has declared a state of emergency over its lack of police officers.
A mother grieving her slain son and other outraged residents filled Vallejo City Council chambers Tuesday with cries of alarm over the Vallejo Police Department’s slow response times and evaporating resources. Council members heeded these calls for action, along with the recommendation of Interim Police Chief Jason Ta, with a unanimous vote to give Ta and City Manager Mike Malone the power to make unilateral decisions regarding Vallejo’s public safety.
This means Ta and Malone will not have to confer with either the council or the Vallejo Police Officers’ Association before making decisions about the city’s law enforcement.
“I need help,” Ta told officials. “I need you guys to be aware of it. I need the public to be aware of it.”
Potential future actions include judgment calls on whether to extend officers’ shifts, pay retired officers to perform certain tasks or call in officers from other law enforcement agencies. The council will receive updates on Ta and Malone’s decisions at every regularly scheduled meeting.
Councilmember Diosdado “JR” Matulac said his vote was not only about current public safety, but also about the very nature of policing in a city with fewer and fewer officers patrolling its streets.
“I think what most people don’t understand is, if we keep going down the road we’re going in, we’re going to get taken over by another jurisdiction,” he warned. “And when that happens, we have no say in this. You will have no say in this. So we need to try and stop the bleeding now.”
Ta and Malone’s power still has some limits. City code stipulates that they cannot sign any contract of over $100,000 without council approval. Council members also stipulated that personnel cannot be moved between buildings without prior council direction, and that the council must receive notice within 48 hours of any purchase made under the state of emergency.
Although no speakers criticized officials’ vote Tuesday, controversy is baked into the decision.
In a rare moment of agreement, both the Vallejo Police Officers’ Association and the Solano County Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union penned letters this week opposing the council’s vote. Both agencies accused city leaders of causing the current staffing shortage and argued that further concentrating power is overstepping.
“It is unconscionable that the Vallejo City Council would attempt to change working conditions for Vallejo police officers by unlawfully declaring a local emergency,” the police union asserted.
The ACLU chapter said, “The public safety crisis and recruitment issues in VPD have accelerated during Mike Malone’s tenure, as a direct result of his leadership decisions. Expanding his powers risks further exacerbating them.”
A Vallejo mother’s voice swelled with fury as she recalled the growing worry and panic of the hours after her only son was killed.
“I reached out to hospitals. I reached out to the Vallejo Police Department. I called 911 and wasted one of those two people’s time looking for my son, who was dead in the coroner’s office,” said Dominique, who declined to give her last name for fear of retaliation.
“Something has to give, and now. Not in the future, Jason (Ta). Not in 18 months. Not in 24 months. Now.”
Dominique said detectives have told her “that they cannot devote full-time investigation at this time, again due to understaffing, because those detectives are out patrolling.” She said Vallejo police also couldn’t offer extra security at her son’s funeral because of staffing shortages —but law enforcement in Vacaville and Napa said they could.
Ta did not dispute most of Dominique’s claims, but said that slow police follow-up has become all too common in Vallejo.
“It’s homicides, but it’s all crimes that I wish we could do a better job on a daily basis to address,” he said.
An officer-involved shooting took place just hours after the death of Dominique’s son, Ta said, placing extreme strain on an already understaffed department.
“Our resources were completely gone,” he said. “We were beyond thin. And we did —we did what we could to accommodate both scenes.”
The Vallejo Police Department, according to city documents, has lost five officers since March, leaving just nine supervisors and 34 officers available for patrol. Another three officers are scheduled to leave in the next month.
Staffing shortages have devastated police dispatch times in Vallejo, with an average of almost an hour and a half passing between the time emergency services receive a call warranting police response and the time an officer is sent. Nowhere else in Solano County faces delays anywhere near this severe.
So few police officers remain in Vallejo, Ta said police have collapsed their traffic division and begun rotating one detective per week to work a patrol shift. He said they may also entirely stop responding to some calls, such as alarm calls, in the near future.
But Ta said these changes will not be sufficient to meet Vallejo’s needs as the police force continues to dwindle. For instance, he referenced a potential scenario where no officers might be available for a day shift.
“If I had to make some changes with staffing because I had no other alternatives, this would allow me the ability to do so,” he said.
Responding to these and similar criticisms, Ta said the police department’s lack of personnel takes a toll on officers as well as crime victims. He pointed out that officers often start their shift with 30 to 40 calls that require a response.
“Sometimes, when you’re dealing with so (many) needs and you show up late to every single call, and you’re getting nailed down at every single call as soon as you arrive —you’re human,” he said. “And sometimes there’s a human response to that. We try our best to make sure that all of our staff is informative, professional and trying to provide the best possible service once they get there. But again, we are under a lot of pressure.”
The city council is also under fire from the Vallejo Police Officers’ Association.
The union argued in its own Monday letter that the city’s officer shortage “is a policy-driven ‘emergency’ resulting from the city council’s continued disrespect for our officers and the work that we do.”
The group blamed city leaders for failing to finalize a contract with police despite 15 months of labor negotiations. It accused the city of creating a “toxic employer-employee relationship,” and held up as evidence the fact that police officers learned about the proposed state of emergency through the city’s website just days before council members voted.
“Not only does the City Council demonstrate its disdain for the VPOA and the members of our Department, it also displays an unbelievable lack of concern for the security and safety of our residents, businesses and visitors,” the union’s Board of Directors wrote.
The VPOA argued that this environment is among the main causes of the staffing shortage —and that diverting decisions around the union will only cause more officers to quit. Moreover, the group argued that the city is “attempting to circumvent state laws regarding municipal employee labor relations” and that this “will be perceived as a direct attack on every city of Vallejo employee.”
“We have been approached by and discussed this with other bargaining units and they stand in solidarity with the contents of this letter and the grave concern we have regarding this underhanded attempt to change work conditions,” the organization said. “They too have deep-rooted concerns that a similar ‘emergency’ could be declared for their respective groups in order to change working conditions and circumvent meet and confer and other concerted labor rights.”
This isn’t the first time city unions have clashed with city management in recent months. Leaders of the VPOA; the Confidential, Administrative, Managerial, and Professional Association of Vallejo; and the local chapters of the International Association of Firefighters and International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers all signed a letter targeting Malone late last month.
The bargaining units condemned the city manager for presenting council members with only a single option for eliminating a controversial tax on Mare Island: Laying off firefighters and police officers.
Even if declaring a state of emergency will, in fact, help combat crime in Vallejo, what Vallejo police will have to do to rebuild their numbers remains unclear.
Attorney Melissa Nold, a former police officer who represents numerous lawsuits against the Vallejo Police Department, spoke in support of council members’ decision Tuesday. But she argued that the agency’s workplace culture is the real issue.
“I agree that we need more people, but what are we going to do to have a place for those officers to go where they’re not going to be corrupted and rotten?” she said. “If we’re going to build something, we’re going to have to start by exorcizing the demons that are there right now.”
Details remain unsettled
What Ta and Malone will do with their enhanced power remains to be seen.
In response to council questions, Ta mentioned a handful of possible changes. He brought up the possibility of hiring retired officers to help with traffic enforcement. He also considered the idea of paying deputies of the Solano County Sheriff’s Office to assist with patrols.
“I feel that some of these (options) need to be explored and potentially adopted on the short term until we can get our footing back,” he said.
Ta did not commit to any specific changes Tuesday, but said “this proclamation is going to allow certain things to happen a little bit quicker.”
“I don’t think anything is really off the table for discussion,” he said.
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