Vallejo, California, calls in the 'peacemakers.' But residents are skeptical.

As the city invites DOJ mediators to ease racial tensions following the killing of a black man by police, the agency involved may be gutted.
Image: Rally for Willie McCoy
Family members of victims of police shootings gather for a rally outside City Hall in Vallejo, California, on Feb. 28, 2019.Brock Stoneham / NBC News file

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By Erik Ortiz

In cities where racial strife has flared following high-profile deaths — such as in Sanford, Florida, in 2013; Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014; and Baltimore in 2015 — the federal government's "peacemakers" have been called in to cool the tensions.

Now, those mediators who belong to the Department of Justice's Community Relations Service have been invited by city officials to the Bay Area community of Vallejo, California. Residents there have complained of a wider pattern of excessive force and overly aggressive policing, highlighted by the death in February of a young black man named Willie McCoy, who was fatally shot by six officers. McCoy's was the 16th death involving Vallejo officers since 2011, police records show.

This isn't the first time Vallejo has asked for assistance from that same agency, and residents and activists say they're cautious about the likelihood of changes happening — given that the mediators have no power to investigate or enforce recommendations for the police department.

"All we want is an unbiased person to come in and say, 'Yes, we've looked at what's happened and determined the police needs to change its policy with X, Y and Z," said Liat Meitzenheimer, a Vallejo resident who helped to coordinate the DOJ's community meetings in 2013 following the fatal police-involved shooting of a black man in his car.

"Otherwise, we've been down this road before," she said.

The Community Relations Service also assisted in Vallejo in 2004, following the death of a man who was tased by police 17 times.

Lawyer Melissa Nold, whose firm is representing the McCoy family and others in litigation against the Vallejo Police Department, blasted the decision.

"I would say that they are not at all serious about reform because they're requesting the assistance of a division of DOJ with no enforcement or investigatory powers," Nold said. "Vallejo doesn't have a community relations problem, it has a culture of violence and lack of supervision problem. CRS cannot address those problems."

In a news release Friday announcing its invitation to the DOJ for help, city officials said they would be coordinating a "community engagement plan," as well as reviewing and reducing the city's risk liabilities. Since 2011, civil rights lawsuits and claims in connection with the police department have cost Vallejo more than $7 million in settlements.

"To improve, we must listen, assess, review, plan and change," City Manager Greg Nyhoff said in a statement. "Whether we celebrate areas we are strong in or change areas where we are weak, every step we take will be to improve the quality of life for our residents and the working environment of our employees."

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The last time the DOJ came into Vallejo, a city of about 122,000, community meetings were held and there was a list of requests, including cultural and sensitivity training for officers, youth outreach, a whistleblower program, and having a dedicated person in the department act as a liaison for the family of people killed in police-involved incidents.

But Meitzenheimer, who's encouraged by the city's involvement, said that while some of those requests were implemented, others fell by the wayside — and allowed for the current divisions to crystallize.

"If you keep ignoring what the community wants, it's like a pressure cooker. It's going to come out somewhere," Meitzenheimer said. "I'm afraid it's going to explode."

Don Jordan, chairman of the African American Alliance, a politically active organization in the city, said he'd like to see an independent investigator with no connection to the police department or its union that can review policies and make recommendations that stick.

"There has to be a better way," Jordan said.

Further complicating matters for cities looking to the federal government for direction is a proposal under the Trump administration that could essentially eliminate how the Community Relations Service operates.

The CRS would be gutted under a proposed fiscal year 2020 budget. If passed, the agency's funding of $15.5 million would be eliminated, 54 authorized positions cut and its duties transferred to the DOJ's Civil Rights Division.

It's unclear how the agency's tasks would be structured within the Civil Rights Division.

The administration attempted to do the same under the fiscal year 2019 budget, when DOJ officials said the job of the agency could be done with fewer people and a smaller regional presence.

That proposal was criticized by civil rights advocates who said the purpose of the Community Relations Service would be weakened. The agency was established as part of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and is the only federal agency dedicated to assisting state and local governments along with community groups to resolve racial conflict, as well as prevent hate crimes. Its services are free and confidential, and it has 10 regional offices.

The DOJ did not return emails seeking comment about the agency's status, and a spokeswoman declined to comment about any potential involvement in Vallejo.

Grande Lum, a former director of the Community Relations Service under the Obama administration, said moving the agency to the Civil Rights Division, which does have the ability to investigate a police department, could deter community officials and law enforcement agencies anxious about whether the DOJ would engender prosecution.

"It's important as a mediator to be perceived as neutral and unbiased," said Lum, now the provost and vice president for Academic Affairs at Menlo College in California.

The Community Relations Service's input was welcomed in Sanford, following the death of black teenager Trayvon Martin in 2012. Sanford Mayor Jeff Triplett credited the agency for keeping the calm in his city as the case drew international attention and went to trial.

"I'd hate to say that we couldn't have done it without them, but I'd much rather learn from someone else’s experience rather than my own misfortune," Triplett told MSNBC in 2013.

But Lum said communities, such as Vallejo, looking for outside guidance have fewer resources under the Trump administration. Another DOJ office, the Community Oriented Policing Services, or COPS, would be defunded under the fiscal year 2020 budget and merged into another office. On top of its usual duties to advise, help train and do organizational assessments of a police force, the COPS office in recent years had been issuing public reports about police departments' problems.

Communities are "just going to get less support and less assistance from federal agencies right now," Lum said. "They have to turn to local, state, protesting and nonprofits in order to have their interests met or to make a difference."

Ronald Davis, who was the director of the COPS office under President Barack Obama and now consults with law enforcement agencies, said the work of the Community Relations Service and COPS would be undermined by reshuffling them into other parts of the department.

Ultimately, he added, it's not only residents but also police officers who deserve the chance to be heard.

"The job is easier and safer for officers when they have the community's back up and confidence," said Davis, a former officer in Oakland and police chief in East Palo Alto. "Officers are victims of bad policies, too."