After spate of police shootings, Vallejo, California, officials ask for DOJ help

The call for federal intervention comes after a tense City Council meeting this week that highlighted issues of policing, particularly within the city's minority community.

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By Erik Ortiz

Officials in the California city where police fatally shot a young rapper inside his car in February are now asking the Department of Justice to step in and help improve relations between officers and the public.

"Having strength is knowing when to ask for help and that time is now," Vallejo Mayor Bob Sampayan said in a statement Friday. "I welcome the wisdom and insights of the DOJ Community Relations Service to improve our police department and assist in elevating the level of community engagement with our residents."

The call for federal intervention comes after a tense City Council meeting this week that focused on issues of policing, particularly within the city's minority community, and a report this month by NBC News that highlighted complaints of alleged aggressive policing and the police-involved shooting of black rapper Willie McCoy as the 16th death involving Vallejo police officers since 2011.

The majority of those killed by the police in Vallejo have been black and Latino men, police records show. The Bay Area city, with a population of 122,000, remains evenly divided among white, black, Latino and Asian residents.

In San Francisco, with a population more than seven times Vallejo's, the police department has been involved in 22 fatal shootings since 2011.

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Vallejo officials said City Manager Greg Nyhoff has formally invited the Department of Justice's Community Relations Service to help the city.

"Mayor Sampayan and City Manager Nyhoff have been in communication with DOJ representatives and will be coordinating a community engagement plan with the experts," the city said in a news release.

The DOJ could not immediately be reached for comment.

It would not be the first time the city has asked for help from federal authorities.

The city in 2013 worked with federal mediators from the Community Relations Service to ease tension between residents and the police department after officers fatally shot a man who had a pellet gun inside his car. That partnership led to the formation of a community relations section within the department.

Nyhoff said in a statement Friday that "elected leaders and City staff are committed to improvements on all fronts in the City of Vallejo, and that includes a cooperative and constructive relationship with the very community that we serve."

While the Community Relations Service assists in "improving community and police relations," advocates of police reform in Vallejo note that it is "not an investigatory or prosecutorial agency, and it does not have any law enforcement authority."

At a City Council meeting Tuesday, residents complained that city officials had not listened to them and family members of loved ones who died in police-involved shootings and implored officials to take action.

"If it was your son, if it was your son, how would you feel? Would you want justice?" asked David Harrison, the cousin of McCoy, who was 20 and went by the stage name Willie Bo.

"You got to hear us," he told the council. "You know why? Because we aren't going anywhere."