Vallejo faces California DOJ review after 18 fatal police shootings in past decade

City leaders in Vallejo, a Bay Area community of 122,000, ratified an agreement Tuesday night allowing the state DOJ to review and reform its embattled police department.

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By Erik Ortiz

For the past 16 months, the family of Willie McCoy, a young rapper from Vallejo, California, has wondered whether charges could ever be brought against the six police officers who fatally shot him in his car in a Taco Bell drive-thru.

They're still waiting.

But for now, the recent announcement by state Attorney General Xavier Becerra that the California Department of Justice will undertake an "expansive review" of the Vallejo Police Department with the goal of reforming its use-of-force procedures and allowing for accountability and transparency for its officers has McCoy's family "cautiously optimistic" that substantive changes will be made.

Willie McCoy, 20, was killed on Feb. 9, 2019.Law Offices of John L. Burris

"It's one thing to say the system is broken, but it's been 487 days since Willie was killed. The six police officers were cleared by the VPD and put back to work before Willie was even buried," McCoy's older brother, Kori, said Tuesday. "In doing so, they felt that their officers never did anything wrong."

Kori McCoy said he hopes that Becerra's intervention "will uncover the truth" about what he says are systemic problems within the police department, and provides a glimpse into what better relations with the community can look like.

"Maybe Vallejo will be used as an example for how to fix a police department," he added.

The Vallejo City Council on Tuesday night unanimously ratified a three-year agreement for the city with its police department and the state Department of Justice, which will work to develop best practices for Vallejo's police force and independently evaluate its implementation efforts. The city stressed that it is a "collaborative effort to modernize and reform" the department, and not a takeover by the state.

The council also voted to request Becerra's office to open an investigation into last week's fatal police shooting in Vallejo of Sean Monterrosa, a 22-year-old Latino man from San Francisco.

Vallejo, a Bay Area city with a racially diverse population of about 122,000, has faced scrutiny over the number of police-involved shootings — 18 since 2010 — making it the highest per capita in Northern California, NBC Bay Area reported last year. According to police records and lawsuits, 14 officers have been involved in at least three shootings each since 2010.

There have also been over a dozen lawsuits filed against the police department, some alleging a "pattern and practice of using excessive force and misconduct against citizens."

The city, which was mired in bankruptcy from 2008 to 2011, has paid out millions of dollars in lawsuit settlements, although officials have cautioned that the settlements don't imply wrongdoing by officers.

Some residents and activists told the City Council in comments Tuesday night that they're tired of promises by city leaders to reform the police department, only to see the complaints of use of force and police brutality continue.

Kori McCoy said last month's killing of George Floyd, a black man in Minneapolis who was handcuffed and pinned to the ground while in police custody, shouldn't be used as a rallying cry in a place like Vallejo if officials can't have an honest accounting of its own department.

"My oldest son was a police officer for a short time. I'm not anti-police, I'm anti-bad police," he said. "And Vallejo has a house full of bad police. They've been allowed by city government to run roughshod."

A year ago, a city-ordered "expert report" on McCoy's death concluded that officers acted reasonably when they fired 55 shots at him within 3.5 seconds. The officers had said they feared they were going to be shot by McCoy after he suddenly woke up inside his car and appeared to be grabbing for a firearm on his lap.

An attorney for the family has argued the high number of shots indicates they didn't act reasonably.

Kori McCoy said he was told by the Solano County District Attorney's Office that before it can investigate the death of his brother, which was caught on police body camera, the Vallejo Police Department must turn over its report to District Attorney Krishna Abrams. It's unclear if that has happened; Abrams' office did not immediately return a request for comment about opening an investigation.

In response to the state Justice Department's involvement, Vallejo Police Chief Shawny Williams, who was brought on last fall and is the city's first black police chief, acknowledged that while he's strengthened implementation of a body-worn camera policy and de-escalation techniques, "the biggest steps are ahead of us."

Mayor Bob Sampayan, a retired police sergeant in Vallejo, said in a statement that "there is more that we know we can do to help the department get where it needs to be" and that the city "will not hide from a thorough review" into the fatal shooting of Monterrosa on June 2.

Police said the officer who killed Monterrosa was responding to a report of a looting at a Walgreens store. The officer, whom the city has not identified, fired five times through a windshield after he believed Monterrosa was armed with a gun and was kneeling "in preparation to shoot," police said. It was later discovered Monterrosa had a hammer in his sweatshirt pocket, not a firearm, according to authorities.

The city said the agreement with the Justice Department was in the works for months and not done specifically as a result of Monterrosa's death. Neither the city nor an attorney with the Vallejo Police Officers' Association, the local union, responded to requests for comment about reports that the officer who fatally shot Monterrosa was also involved in three previous shootings.

Given the breadth of the complaints against Vallejo police, any outside help should be welcomed since "this is a nowhere-to-go-but-up phenomenon," Robert Weisberg, a criminal justice expert and law professor at Stanford University, said.

Weisberg said the state's intervention may not appear to be as strong as if the federal government were to investigate a local police department, as it had in Ferguson, Missouri, after the 2014 police shooting of Michael Brown, a teenager, and in Baltimore after the 2015 death of Freddie Gray. Oakland's police department has been under a court-appointed federal monitor since 2003 in the wake of alleged police misconduct that cost the city millions of dollars.

Still, the collaboration between the state Justice Department and Vallejo can be a "positive step" as long as the attorney general has true independence in its review and the local force acquiesces to implementing necessary policies, Weisberg said, adding that the city will also need to take a deep look into whom they're hiring.

"The rogue cop problem is a terrible, terrible problem. But it's not just training, it's recruiting," he said.

A national debate over defunding or even dismantling police departments in the aftermath of Floyd's death is especially fraught in places like Vallejo, where some say attracting the best officers means paying competitive salaries in line with other, more affluent communities in the Bay Area.

"You might not be able to fund Vallejo to ensure it's going to hire the very best officers, but you can fund it to ensure it doesn't get the worst officers," Weisberg said.

Joshua Chanin, an associate professor of public administration and criminology at San Diego State University, said that organizational reform of a police department "requires so many things to go right," including support from leadership as well as adequate political and financial backing.

Prior to Vallejo, the state Justice Department opened a similar review of the Sacramento Police Department's use-of-force procedures following the March 2018 death of Stephon Clark, a black man killed by police officers who believed he was armed, but was later found to be holding a cellphone. The Sacramento County prosecutor declined to press charges against the officers, and the federal Justice Department also decided not to pursue criminal civil rights charges.

In one change in response to Becerra's report, Sacramento agreed to track complaints against police officers differently, after police had reported that there were no racial or identity profiling complaints made against the city's department in 2017, confounding observers.

Chanin said there's been a mixed-bag of results nationwide when it comes to cities benefiting from outside oversight. Places such as Cincinnati and Seattle have seen progress, he said, while Pittsburgh, whose police department was under a federal consent decree for five years following accusations of civil rights violations, "saw changes dissipate shortly after the reform-minded chief was ousted."

Chanin remains skeptical that Sacramento and Vallejo can get the sweeping reforms needed since even the federal government can appear to be ineffective in the long run.

"The federal process is judicially enforceable, carefully monitored by DOJ attorneys, and often managed by a team of independent monitors. This oversight system has a strong track record of driving implementation, but little to show for lasting change or the ability to shift agency culture," Chanin said in an email.

"Put another way, many federal agreements fail to bring about lasting change despite having many of the necessary ingredients in place to succeed. The reforms outlined in the California Justice Department's report on Sacramento are very similar to those described in federal reviews of policing in Ferguson and Baltimore, but unlike these cities, Sacramento (and presumably Vallejo) will have none of the same systems in place," he added.

Still, Vallejo residents say they're keeping a watchful eye on what happens next.

Don Jordan, chairman of the African American Alliance, a politically active organization in the city, said officers need to undergo civil rights and bias training and there needs to be a citizens review board that has the power to subpoena officers as part of excessive force investigations.

With mayoral and City Council elections coming this November, he said, "as an African American community, we won't support candidates that aren't for this."

Adrian Burrell, a black Marine veteran who filed an excessive force lawsuit against Vallejo and an officer last September, said he's more keen on the idea of defunding police departments, which advocates suggest is beneficial by diverting money into violence prevention programs, health care and better housing in order to improve communities.

"We've tried the old ways and it hasn't worked," Burrell said, "so I think it's time to try something different."