KQED interviewed Vallejo City Manager Daniel E. Keen about the spike in fatal shootings by Vallejo police in 2012 and beyond. Keen declined to speak in person and said he would answer questions only by email. Here is an edited version of that interview.
Q. How has Vallejo’s bankruptcy impacted public safety in the city? I understand the police department has lost a significant number of officers, and is now making a recruitment push to replenish staff.
A. Vallejo’s significant decline in property tax and sales tax revenue, as a result of the recession, had a significant negative impact on public safety staffing for both police and fire. Both departments reduced staffing by more than 40 percent at the lowest staffing point. At one time, the Vallejo Police Department was authorized staffing for 158 sworn officers. That authorized staffing level had dropped to 88 officers, with actual staffing dropping to as low as 77 officers in 2013. Today, the Vallejo Police Department has an authorized sworn staffing level of 110 police officers. As of May 1, 2014, actual sworn staffing is at 91 police officers with an additional four (4) police trainees attending the police academy. We anticipate that our sworn staffing level will be at 95-98 police officers by June 30, 2014, and we believe that we will reach 105-110 sworn by Dec. 31, 2014.
Vallejo’s bankruptcy process provided the opportunity to restructure labor agreements and has reduced the cost of providing public safety services to the community. Additionally, in November 2011 Vallejo voters approved Measure B (1 percent sales tax for 10 years) which has provided increased resources for investment in public safety technology and staffing.
Q. Are there additional socioeconomic factors that can also affect public safety? For instance, I know that in 2012 there were 14 homicides in Vallejo and 24 in 2013 (not counting fatal officer-involved shootings). Do you think economic issues in the city (unemployment or others) are affecting this trend, and what is the city doing about it?
A. The spike of homicides in 2013 are most directly attributed to gang activity in Vallejo. More than 75 percent of all homicides in 2013 were gang-related. The nearby city of Fairfield has experienced many of the same violent crime-related incidents that we have seen in Vallejo. There are numerous socioeconomic factors related to violent crimes in our country. However, most law enforcement agencies throughout California; from Fresno to Oakland and Stockton to Sacramento, will agree that issues pertaining to gangs, a proliferation of firearms, and drugs and alcohol are quite often associated with violent crimes, including homicide.
Over the past two years, the Vallejo Police Department has initiated and implemented numerous crime prevention and crime intervention strategies in an effort to combat and reduce violent crimes in our community. We believe that many of the proactive steps taken have had a positive effect by way of reducing violent crimes in Vallejo in the first quarter of 2014. The command staff of the department recently met with the Eastern District U.S. Attorney and several other local, state and federal law enforcement agencies, including the FBI, ATF, IRS, Stockton and Sacramento Police Departments, Sacramento and Solano Sheriff’s Departments, California Highway Patrol and crime analysis partners in an effort to discuss common problem-solving strategies and to search for solutions to reduce violent crimes in our communities.
The Vallejo Police Department conducted joint targeted enforcement operations with the California Highway Patrol and Solano County Sheriff’s Department in 2013, and a Vallejo police officer will be assigned to the Solano Sheriff’s Special Enforcement Team in 2014 to assist in the focus on parolees and probationers in Solano County, especially those who are prone to commit violent crimes. We have also initiated discussions with our local FBI office to place a Vallejo police officer on a new FBI “Safe Streets Task Force.”
U.S. Department of Justice’s 2013 Visit
Q. I understand the U.S. Department of Justice facilitated a series of community meetings in early 2013 in an effort to improve the relationship between the community and Vallejo’s Police Department. Was that effort successful, and is the city doing anything else to continue this effort?
A. Yes, The U.S. Department of Justice Community Relations Service assisted the City of Vallejo with a series of community meetings designed to focus on relationships between the Vallejo Police Department and the community in an effort to build trust and relationships. We believe that the meetings were successful in providing information directly to community members in small group settings. Since that time, the Vallejo Police Department has established a Community Relations Section within the department. The Community Relations Section has reached out to the community and provided information and training on crime prevention; established new and reinforced existing Neighborhood Watch programs; held neighborhood and community meetings; and attended many other community meetings with a focus on enhancing police/community relations.
The Department also reviewed citizen complaints and revised our policies and procedures related to the citizen complaint process.
From 2012-2013 the Vallejo Police Department worked closely with a Citizens Public Safety Advisory Committee. The committee made numerous recommendations for the enhancement of public safety, police/community relationships, public safety communication and police professionalism in our community. The Department embraced these suggestions, and numerous policy, procedure and program changes were implemented as a result of this successful police/community partnership.
Q. Is there any other effort underway in the city of Vallejo to reduce the number of fatal or otherwise violent contacts between police and citizens, especially citizens who are unarmed?
A. For the past two years, the Vallejo Police Department has invested thousands of hours of training to ensure that our officers are prepared to respond to any critical incident or potential violent confrontation. In 2013, the department purchased (and incorporated into our training regimen) a state-of-the art defensive tactics and firearms simulator that trains our officers in “decision-based scenarios” related to potential violent contacts. The Vallejo Police Department continually reviews, evaluates and amends policies and procedures related to use of force and response to critical incidents. For the past two years, the department has been engaged in a complete renovation of policies and procedures by way of transitioning to the “Lexipol” Policy Manual. More than 95 percent of California law enforcement agencies and more than 1,500 total public safety agencies subscribe to the Lexipol Policy system. The department has made numerous policy and procedure changes during these past two years, and the implementation of the Lexipol system in the next few months will complete a very comprehensive review and change of key department policies. The Vallejo Police Department is currently in the final meet-and-confer stage with the Vallejo Police Officer’s Association to complete this transition.
Virtually every day, Vallejo PD officers encounter individuals with firearms and other dangerous weapons. In 2012 and 2013, through direct contact with citizens and Vallejo police officers, each year, more than 200 illegal firearms were seized from individuals in Vallejo. In 2013, Vallejo police officers responded to hundreds of “shots-fired” calls, including more than 200 shootings where individuals were victims of firearms violence.
Q. Regarding the Vallejo Police Department’s recruitment effort, I recently found a video published April 16, 2014, on YouTube and propagated in your newsletter. The video shows a line of six police officers holding assault rifles and shotguns, a K-9 officer commanding a dog that then runs off screen, an officer drawing his handgun against a backdrop of a man on a front lawn, and a mock SWAT raid in which officers throw a (tear gas?) grenade into a home and then charge in. When I showed this video to an independent legal expert I’ve interviewed for this story, he was amazed and talked at length about it showing a disregard for the Vallejo Police Department’s recent history of fatal shootings of civilians, which continues beyond 2012. Is the level of dramatized lethal force in this video appropriate, given Vallejo’s crime rate and/or officer-involved fatal incident record? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=12d9Y_xM7VY
A. Your independent legal expert certainly has his/her right to their opinion regarding the Vallejo Police Department’s Recruitment Video. We disagree with the assessment that this recruitment video displays a disregard for citizens in Vallejo.
Q. Finally, the independent legal expert I have interviewed for this story said if a single police officer is involved in more than one fatal incident in the period of a year, it becomes a question of department management rather than actions of the individual officer, and that officer would almost always be reassigned. I have information that at least two officers in the Vallejo Police Department fit that criteria: Sean Kenney (3) and Joseph McCarthy (2). Does the department or the city have any policy regarding this issue? (Note: this question would likely be better directed to your police chief, but repeated requests for comment from Joseph Kreins resulted in Lt. Sid De Jesus telling me that as a new “organizational policy,” the department would no longer comment at all on any aspect of officer-involved shootings).
A. The Vallejo Police Department investigates, or provides for the investigation of every such incident, and makes decisions about potential reassignment based on the information revealed in the investigation.