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Fewer officers or better cops? Police Chief praises drop in use-of-force cases, union says its because of staffing shortages

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Lauren Hernández

San Francisco Chronicle

Roughly two years after the Vallejo Police Department drew criticism for its history of using unnecessary force against people, particularly Black people and other people of color, a new report said use-of-force incidents have dropped by 33% between 2020 and 2021 — the lowest numbers in five years, authorities said. Police Chief Shawny Williams applauded the report in a statement on Monday, saying the drop in use-of-force incidents can be attributed to changes in leadership, policy, training and accountability. But Vallejo police’s union said in a scathing statement Friday that while the reduction in use-of-force incidents is real, it’s not due to solid leadership by the chief — it’s partly because there are fewer officers and low morale.

The reduction in use-of-force incidents, police union officials said, was actually a result of a shrinking police force, the statewide ban of the carotid restraint — which involves applying pressure on someone’s neck, cutting off blood flow in the carotid artery to the brain — and low morale and “lack of confidence” in Williams, according to a statement by the Vallejo Police Officers’ Association.

The report by Police Strategies LLC said that officers did not “use any firearms, impact weapons or neck restraints during any use of force incident” in 2021, marking a first in the past five years, police said. Authorities noted a decrease in “neck restraints” during the past five years, pointing to 24 reported incidents in 2017 and zero reported incidents in 2021.

In 2021, there were zero reported uses of impact weapons compared to 22 incidents in 2017, police said. The report also noted two incidents of K-9 bites in 2021, the lowest in the last five years, police said.

In 2020, police said 48% of use-of-force incidents “involved the officers’ use of a weapon,” and that figure dropped to 32% in 2021, police said.

The report also noted that the percentage of use-of-force “subjects with mental health issues” increased from 5% to 28% between 2017 and 2021. Last year, police said that use-of-force “subjects were more likely to have mental health issues.”

“In the last two and a half years, Chief Williams has placed an emphasis on changes in training and education, communicating clear expectations of active supervision, accountability and transparency, maintaining fair and consistent standards of discipline and conduct, and implementing the principles of 21st century policing while building strong community partnerships,” police officials said.

Williams characterized the data in the statement as “clear and convincing evidence of positive change and transformation within the culture and practices of our department.”

“This is not just a dramatic change in policing practices, but a re-defining shift in the culture of professionalism, mindset and policing system within our department,” Williams said.

Police union representatives said the chief’s press release Monday was misleading to the public because it did not take into account the drop in number of sworn officers in the Police Department — specifically a 35% reduction in officers who either left the department or who are “off the streets due to injuries” in 2021 — and “other areas that could be correlated to the drop” in use-of-force incidents.

“For example, the hesitation of officers to engage in force incidents has increased under Chief Williams’ leadership,” police union representatives said. “Additionally, low morale, complete lack of confidence in his leadership, excessive amounts of forced overtime, the COVID pandemic and disparate and retaliatory disciplining of officers likely were major factors in this reduction.”

Vallejo police officials could not be reached on Friday afternoon.

Police union representatives also noted that the recent use-of-force report found that police officers were “twice as likely to be physically assaulted” in 2021 compared to in recent years, but still used “lower levels of force against higher levels of subject resistance,” according to the report.

“To be clear, the decision an officer makes to use force is not arbitrary. It is a direct result of suspect actions that are often unpredictable and beyond an officers control,” police union representatives said. “Despite this desire for a reduction, it is important that ALL challenges are clearly presented to the community regarding this issue.”

Police union representatives said they are concerned about the safety of their colleagues and concerned about Williams’ transparency with the community.

Vallejo Police Department has been the subject of outrage from community members and community activists, particularly in police killings and other high-profile violent police encounters over the years.

In June 2020, then- California Attorney General Xavier Becerra announced a “review and reform agreement” with the city of Vallejo shortly after a Vallejo police officer opened fire through the windshield of a police vehicle and killed San Francisco resident Sean Monterrosa, 22, who was on his knees outside of a Walgreens that was getting burglarized during civil unrest following the police murder of George Floyd. A report later released by independent investigators found that the officer violated Police Department policy in the killing.

The attorney general’s office review of Vallejo police was not centered on Monterrosa’s killing, but on the Police Department’s training and policies surrounding use-of-force and community policing, officials said at the time.

In April 2021, an attorney representing the police union announced that two Vallejo police lieutenants were fired over emails they sent out. Michael Nichelini, president of the police union, was fired in part for sending an email to former Chronicle columnist Otis R. Taylor Jr. that read, “We will warn our Georgia colleagues of your impending arrival,” referring to law enforcement in Georgia, where Taylor had moved to join the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s investigative team at the time.

Taylor, who had reported extensively on the Police Department for The Chronicle, said at the time that the email was a “thinly-veiled threat” and told The Chronicle that the email was “indicative of the culture of the Vallejo Police Department, and that’s been a concern of mine and residents within that city for years.”

Vallejo police veteran Herman Robinson was also fired after more than 40 years with the Police Department for sharing internal information with former and retired police department colleagues, an attorney speaking on behalf of Robinson’s attorney said at the time.

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