Clarification: An earlier version of this story did not adequately explain that when the city of Vallejo reduced police funding it did not provide additional funding to social services agencies, as many current “defund the police” proposals advocate. The story has been revised to add that information.

Twelve years ago, officials in Vallejo, Calif., reluctantly took a step that activists are now urging in cities across the country: They defunded their police department.

Unable to pay its bills after the 2008 financial crisis, Vallejo filed for bankruptcy and cut its police force nearly in half — to fewer than 80 officers, from a pre-recession high of more than 150. At the time, the working-class city of 122,000 north of San Francisco struggled with high rates of violent crime and simmering mistrust of its police department. It didn’t seem like things could get much worse.

And then they did. Far from ushering in a new era of harmony between police and the people they are sworn to protect, the budget cuts worsened tensions between the department and the community and were followed by a dramatic surge in officers’ use of deadly force. Since 2009 the police have killed 20 people, an extraordinarily high number for such a small city. In 2012 alone, officers fatally shot six suspects. Nearly a third of the city’s homicides that year were committed by law enforcement.

Vallejo’s experience offers a glimpse of how a core element of the defunding agenda — fewer officers, assigned to limited duties — might play out, especially in a community with limited resources. In the wake of national protests sparked by the death of George Floyd, city officials from New York to Los Angeles are talking seriously about far-reaching cuts to their police forces.

Those who support such an approach say that the current model of policing is irrevocably broken and that millions or billions of dollars should be moved from police budgets to social services. That did not happen in Vallejo, which departed from many current prescriptions for reform in a fundamental way: As the city went broke, there was no effort to shift money from its diminished police department to other agencies and programs, which likewise faced cuts.

Nevertheless, some Vallejo residents and public officials who have seen the reality of a dramatically smaller police department view the current calls to slash law enforcement budgets with caution. Beyond consequences such as decreased responsiveness to burglaries, car thefts and other lower-priority offenses, this city has learned the hard way that a smaller police force is not necessarily a less deadly one.

Danté R. Quick, pastor at Vallejo’s Friendship Missionary Baptist Church and a lead organizer of the city’s protests after the death of Floyd, said he worries that some of his fellow activists have too simplistic an understanding of what police reform entails.

“Our police department is woefully ‘defunded’ — which has led to overworked, underpaid and therefore underqualified police officers,” Quick said. “Do I really want a man or woman who’s worked 16 hours straight, with a gun in their hand, with state-sanctioned ability to take my life, who is tired — do I want that person authorized to police me? The answer to that is no.”

Quick, who is African American, said that rather than further reducing his city’s already stretched police force, he is advocating for a more diverse department, expanded efforts by officers to build bonds in the community, and greater scrutiny and accountability for cops who use deadly force.

“I’ve said it over and over again: Black people call the police,” he said. “It’s not about not wanting or needing the police. It’s about knowing that if I call the police to my home, they won’t shoot me. We want good policing.”

Others question whether a smaller staff played a role in the woes of a police department that, by some accounts, already had a poisoned relationship with its city before the Great Recession.

The problems have been particularly acute among Vallejo’s residents of color, who make up roughly 75 percent of the city but have long been served by a majority-white police force.

“Police brutality is not a new problem at all,” said Melissa Nold, a civil rights lawyer who grew up in Vallejo and is representing multiple families suing the city over deadly police shootings.

She said what led to an uproar in her hometown was not an overworked department but the growing omnipresence of cellphones, which — along with officers’ body cameras — have captured startling video footage “consistent with what the black community had been talking about for decades.”

While there’s no agreement on the exact causes of the city’s police problems, few defend the status quo. And many agree on the urgency of change that goes beyond the size of the department.

Just this month, a new shooting intensified calls for reform. On June 2, Vallejo police responded to reports of looting at a Walgreens. One of the officers fired his gun through the windshield of his cruiser at 22-year-old Sean Monterrosa, saying he believed that Monterrosa had a gun. Monterrosa was killed. He was kneeling, officials have said, and had no gun. The object in his pocket was a hammer.

'Us against the world'

Vallejo hugs the shore of San Pablo Bay, about an hour’s drive northeast of San Francisco. But the city shares little in common with the Bay Area’s wealthier suburbs.

The diverse community grew up around the once-bustling Mare Island Naval Shipyard. Today the city is almost evenly divided among white, black, Latino and Asian — mostly Filipino — residents. When the naval base closed in 1996, the local economy drifted. Vallejo was left out of the prosperity that washed over the San Francisco peninsula from the tech industry.

Another blow came in 2008. Like many cities in California, Vallejo offered generous pay and benefits for public employees, particularly police officers and firefighters. When the economy crashed, the city’s decimated tax base forced it into bankruptcy. The police department, which accounted for much of Vallejo’s spending, was put on the chopping block.

Mayor Bob Sampayan said the cuts were felt immediately.

“We were in triage mode,” said Sampayan, himself a former police officer who retired in 2006. “We responded only to crimes in progress, and everything else was put on the back burner.”

Lt. Michael Nichelini, president of the Vallejo Police Officers’ Association, recalled watching as one division and program after another — traffic, narcotics, school resource officers, community policing — was cut so that the department could concentrate its remaining staff on patrol and investigations. Veteran officers fled, he said, and those who replaced them were often less-experienced cops willing to accept lower pay and rougher working conditions.

“It severely impacted our ability to provide not only top-notch police service but, I would say, even regular police service,” Nichelini said. In a city with high rates of violent crime, he added, the smaller number of officers found themselves repeatedly confronting dangerous situations.

“If you have a guy who’s in a shooting, or uses a baton, or whatever,” Nichelini said, “that same officer is coming right back to work, because we don’t have anybody else to take their place.”

A recent review of the Vallejo Police Department by the OIR Group, an independent consultancy hired by the city, found “significant and far-reaching” effects from the staffing reductions that linger to this day. At a basic level, the consultants found, Vallejo simply has too few police officers to do the work asked of them. Today, the approximately 100 sworn officers average out to 0.8 per 1,000 residents, about half the national average and less than a sixth of the number in Washington. 

The OIR Group found that mandated overtime caused by personnel shortages led to “burnout, discouragement, and a pervasive sense of being underappreciated by city officials as well as outsiders,” and that working conditions fostered an “ ‘us against the world’ mindset.”

That attitude was evident in the increasing violence between police and residents. During the five-year period that ended in 2009, six people lost their lives in encounters with Vallejo police, according to Open Vallejo, a local journalism nonprofit that has extensively covered officers’ use of force. Over the next five years, the number jumped to 13.

Police themselves were not spared from bloodshed. In 2011, Officer James Capoot was shot to death while running after a bank robbery suspect.

The extensive use of force — both lethal and nonlethal — by police soon became hard for city officials to ignore. In 2018 Vallejo decided to leave the insurance pool used by California municipalities rather than pay higher premiums to make up for its legal settlements, which were burning up a disproportionate share of the group’s money.

“This is a problem that is not unrelated to the policing problems the entire country faces. But Vallejo is an outlier,” said Brien Farrell, a Vallejo resident and former city attorney for Santa Rosa, Calif.

Farrell, who in his old job frequently scrutinized police-misconduct complaints and defended accused officers, said the extent of police violence against citizens in Vallejo has become a major financial liability as well as a moral outrage.

“My estimate is that there are 20 to 30 misconduct suits pending against Vallejo. That’s an extraordinary number for a city of 120,000,” Farrell said. “I am an expert at assessing the civil liabilities of police officers in these incidents. And the city has major exposure.”

'We can police ourselves'

Among those pursuing claims against the city are the relatives of Willie McCoy, a 20-year-old rapper shot to death last year in a Taco Bell parking lot by a group of police officers.

McCoy had apparently fallen asleep or passed out in the driver’s seat of his car, in the restaurant’s drive thru lane. Police called to the scene saw that he had a gun in his lap. The ensuing interaction was captured on body-camera footage later made public.

The officers surround McCoy’s car, guns drawn on him at close range. When he begins to stir, they scream at him to raise his hands, then fire 55 rounds into the car. Police asserted that he was reaching for the gun in his lap, although his motions cannot be clearly seen in the video footage.

“If he had a bazooka on his lap, my brother was clearly shot awake,” said Kori McCoy, Willie’s brother. “We look at it as an execution.”

Kori, a 49-year-old retired grocery clerk who lives in the nearby city of Hercules, has joined others in pushing for change at the Vallejo Police Department. His focus is not on defunding but greater accountability, through internal discipline and criminal prosecutions, for officers who kill.

Such accountability has so far eluded the McCoy family. An independent review commissioned by the city determined that Willie’s shooting was justified.

“This is a supervision problem and a discipline problem,” Kori McCoy said. “When these police officers go out here, they know that there’s no repercussions. That’s why they do it over and over again.”

Alicia Saddler takes a dimmer view of the prospects for reform.

Her 21-year-old brother, Angel Ramos, was shot and killed by police after they were called to the family’s home to break up a fight. The officer who shot him, who was later cleared by the department, asserted that he saw Ramos holding a knife. No weapon was found near the body.

“I think they should be completely abolished. They don’t do nothing to help us at all,” Saddler said. “We can police ourselves. It’s been done before, and it can be done again.”

She pointed to the Black Panther Party’s armed citizen patrols during the 1960s as an example of how a community can keep itself safe without interference from law enforcement.

Saddler said she has watched the national groundswell for police reform after Floyd’s death with mixed emotions. While she welcomes those joining the cause, she said, she is perplexed that it took so long.

She is particularly wary of some Vallejo city officials, who she said ignored her and other families of victims of police violence until the protests over Floyd’s death made it politically impractical to continue doing so. Since Floyd’s death, she said, “they want to be on board, they want to help, they’re speaking out against the police. I guess it’s great. It just would have been nice if they had done it years ago, then maybe my brother would be alive.”

Sampayan, the mayor, acknowledged that city officials had not given residents’ complaints the attention they deserved.

“We haven’t listened for years,” he said. “It isn’t just the city of Vallejo. It’s the entire nation. We have not listened. And for that I apologize.”

Sampayan said he is willing to support overhauls of policing in Vallejo, including a more diverse department (the city recently hired its first African American police chief) and an auditor and police commission to review officers’ use of force.

This month California Attorney General Xavier Becerra (D) also announced that the state Department of Justice would be working with the city to review and improve the practices of its police department.

But there is one reform at the top of the national agenda that Sampayan says he is not willing to consider: further cuts to the police. To restore the department’s relationship with the community, the mayor said, he would ideally like to see double the current number of officers.

As elected officials cope with a budget battered by the coronavirus pandemic’s effects on the economy, such an expansion is probably impossible. But more “defunding,” Sampayan said, is out of the question.

“Our populace won’t stand for that,” he said.