By Katy St. Clair, Bay City News Foundation
VALLEJO, CA — A Solano County grand jury has concluded what Vallejo residents and the police department already knew — the city needs a new police department building to replace the current cramped and toxin-filled edifice that has housed officers and staff since the 1960s. But,the jury said that delays that have occurred in relocating the police station have meant an increase in relocation costs, not to mention a decline in police department morale.
The grand jury’s recommendation? Get your act together, Vallejo, and give the police department a new headquarters.
The grand jury report, published Friday, is titled “Delays in Relocation of Vallejo Police Department are Costly” and was undertaken by the jury after pushback from some residents against opening a brand-new police station on prime waterfront real estate and delayed decisions by the city council have stymied any progress on the issue.
The current police station on Amador Street is centrally located, but that is about all it has going for it. Lead, asbestos, sewage and flooding problems, lack of a backup generator, a failing HVAC system, and insufficient space for a force that polices a community whose population has doubled since the 1960s all contribute to its problems, according to the report.
In 2019, with council approval, the city purchased a large building at 400 Mare Island Way adjacent to the waterfront with the idea that it would become the new police station. Once purchased, Vallejo had to address zoning issues and the building’s need for an expensive retrofit, but it also faced a backlash from residents who didn’t want to see the police take over the building. Some felt that housing a police station in the heart of a tourist area along the city’s Monopoly board “Park Place and Boardwalk real estate” would send the wrong message. Others had feelings “that the police force did not deserve a nice new location,” the jury said, due to officer-involved shooting scandals that have plagued the department and its practice of “badge bending” to allegedly celebrate the killing of suspects. At this, the jury was defiant: “Punishing current law enforcement officers for the alleged past shameful acts of others does not seem to be a reasonable step towards building a better, safer Vallejo,” the report says.
Some of the police services have already moved into the waterfront building despite no council approval, the news of which further angered some in the community who say the police department is not being transparent. Detectives have offices there and a Community Assistance Resource and Engagement “CARE” center has been set up for victims and their families to receive counseling and treatment.
Vallejo Police Chief Shawny Williams opened the center as a place to interview witnesses and support victims, he said, because the current station is a bleak, cold place that provides comfort and a feeling of safety to no one. The Grand Jury praised the CARE center, calling it a “trauma-centered, calming environment for victims, primarily children, seeking help.”
Multiple city council meetings about a new police station have been met with protests and vocal opposition during public comments. Most recently, the council seemed to take the pushback to heart and began to consider setting up the new station is what is now the library next to city hall downtown. The Mare Island Way building would then house the library, which pleased many who liked the idea of a community hub next to the water. The Grand Jury doesn’t find this idea feasible, however, because the current library is not ADA compliant and the cost to make it so would exceed the cost of retrofitting the Mare Island Way site, they found. This too will throw a monkey wrench into plans, since both council and community seemed to be moving towards a mutual agreement with using the library site.
Then, Interim Assistant City Manager Terrence Davis told the council on April 12 that the cost for moving the police station into the library building and relocating the library elsewhere exceeds estimated costs for a waterfront station. The waterfront building on Mare Island Way cost the city $13.45 million and will cost between $30 and $35 million to retrofit, a price that has gone up by at least $15 million since the building was first purchased by the city, the jury said. Davis estimates that building an entirely new building from the ground up, yet another option, will cost $56.1 million, plus the cost of the land.
“The City Council has been delaying action while members are divided on the issue and unclear as to their power to approve or deny the move,” reads the jury’s findings. “Fielding public comments and protests, times spent attempting to find other locations and the costs involved in delaying a relocation have resulted in no decisions.”
All of these delays are having a ripple effect, according to the jury. First of all, the Vallejo Police Department is understaffed. Chief Williams has repeatedly said that the number of officers in his force is dangerously low. The Grand Jury report points to 2008, when the city went bankrupt and “deep cuts” were made into the ranks of sworn officers, not to mention pay cuts for those who remained. At its lowest point, the jury found that officers in Vallejo went from 150 sworn officers to 77. Ideally, the jury said, a community should have between 1.8 to 2.6 officers per 1,000 residents; Vallejo has .8 officers per one thousand citizens. The problem has meant that 911 calls have to be prioritized — with some not being responded to at all — and the department is facing a critical lack of dispatchers to take those calls.
Then there’s the impact that having a decrepit building has on officers, both current and prospective. Chief Williams said it is hard to attract people to the force when they see the building and he’s lost people to attrition who have moved to towns with better facilities. An Office of Independent Review (OIR) investigation concurred in 2019, calling the building “deteriorated,” “plagued with asbestos,” and “emblematic in the staff’s eyes of the challenging circumstances that perpetually confront them.”
The jury’s findings and recommendations were summarized at the end of the report. It recommends that the city council take the steps needed to relocate the police department and it needs to be done “as soon as possible.” Any retrofitting — presumably at the Mare Island Way site — should be paid for by applying for federal or state infrastructure grants. The jury notes that a new station will enhance recruitment efforts and the city should seek funding through federal and state grants to augment pay for its officers as well. Finally, the jury expressed support for the CARE center, recommending that it continue to operate at the waterfront site “where the environment is separate from the business of the police department.”
The Vallejo Police Department did not respond to a request for comment.
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