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Carl Charles, wearing a dark suit, stands at a podium during a town hall meeting, craning his neck to listen to a speaker. Two men sit in the foreground, one in focus, the other blurred. The room is set up for a formal meeting, with desks and computer monitors visible.Carl Charles, wearing a dark suit, stands at a podium during a town hall meeting, craning his neck to listen to a speaker. Two men sit in the foreground, one in focus, the other blurred. The room is set up for a formal meeting, with desks and computer monitors visible.
Recruiter Carl Charles listens to comment from the audience during a town hall meeting on police chief recruitment in Vallejo on June 29, 2024. (Geoffrey King / Open Vallejo)

Vallejo authorities are gathering feedback from the community before soon launching a nationwide search for the next head of the city’s police department, which has been without a permanent chief since the sudden resignation of Shawny Williams in 2022.

City Manager Andrew Murray and staff from the executive search firm Bob Hall and Associates hosted a meeting in Vallejo’s City Council Chambers Saturday morning to gather citizens’ input on the city’s next police chief. The city expects to select a final candidate by October.

A man wearing a dark shirt and camouflage shorts stands at a microphone and speaks to an audience during a town hall meeting. Several participants sit behind him, including a woman wearing a blue patterned shirt and a man wearing a green shirt.A man wearing a dark shirt and camouflage shorts stands at a microphone and speaks to an audience during a town hall meeting. Several participants sit behind him, including a woman wearing a blue patterned shirt and a man wearing a green shirt.
Vallejo resident Gary Wettstein speaks at a town hall meeting on police recruitment in Vallejo on June 29, 2024, as City Manager Andrew Murray and Recruiting Officer Joe Gorton look on. (Geoffrey King / Open Vallejo)

More than a dozen people attended the town hall meeting, with several residents expressing hope that the city could find strong, qualified candidates capable of restoring trust and improving the agency’s relationship with the public, changing a toxic culture within the agency and making progress on the California Department of Justice’s stalled efforts to reform the agency.

“The truth is we need someone with thick skin who is determined to get the ship back on course,” Vallejo resident Gary Wettstein told recruiters during the public comment period of the meeting.

The Vallejo Police Department has been under scrutiny by the state Department of Justice for at least four years because of the high number of police shootings. Since 2000, 30 people have died in police shootings in Vallejo, a city of about 125,000, research by Open Vallejo shows. In 2020, that newsroom revealed a tradition in which a group of officers bend the tips of their star-shaped badges to commemorate fatal shootings; Vallejo police have not killed anyone since. But dozens of officers have also resigned or retired from the department, reflecting the nationwide staffing and recruiting issues that are plaguing law enforcement agencies across the country.

“Unfortunately, the relationship between the Vallejo Police Department and the public has been turbulent for over a decade,” said resident Paula Conley. “There is a deep wound that will take time to heal.”

A woman in a blue shirt stands at a microphone and speaks during a town hall meeting. Several participants sit in the background and a man at the lectern listens. The room is well lit by overhead lights and a large clock showing the time.A woman in a blue shirt stands at a microphone and speaks during a town hall meeting. Several participants sit in the background and a man at the lectern listens. The room is well lit by overhead lights and a large clock showing the time.
Vallejo residents who attended the town hall meeting said they wanted a more responsive and fair police force. (Geoffrey King / Open Vallejo)

A permanent chief is expected to replace interim Chief Jason Ta, who took over the department after Williams, the city’s first Black police chief, abruptly resigned in November 2022. The next chief will take the helm as the city works to implement a sweeping set of police reforms outlined in an agreement reached in April with the California Department of Justice after the state agency withdrew a lawsuit against the city seeking to enforce a settlement. The lawsuit followed a failed joint reform effort between the Justice Department and the city.

Joe Gorton and Carl Charles, two recruiters who both previously worked as police chiefs in California, led Saturday’s community workshop. Another community meeting is planned for July 25. The recruiters said they will also meet with various stakeholders in the coming weeks, including the Vallejo Police Officers’ Association, the American Civil Liberties Union and representatives of local schools, businesses and religious organizations.

A man in a plaid shirt sits attentively holding a notebook during a town hall meeting. Another man in a suit is out of focus in the background. Computer monitors and desks are visible, suggesting a formal meeting situation.A man in a plaid shirt sits attentively holding a notebook during a town hall meeting. Another man in a suit is out of focus in the background. Computer monitors and desks are visible, suggesting a formal meeting situation.
Newly appointed Vallejo City Manager Andrew Murray acknowledged that the police chief search will be an important first test of his leadership abilities. (Geoffrey King / Open Vallejo)

After gathering feedback, the city will post the job posting in July and begin reviewing candidates in August. Three panels consisting of law enforcement officers, community members and city staff will interview candidates in September and provide their feedback to the city manager. Murray will then interview the finalists and make a selection. A decision is expected by October, according to recruiters. The city plans to keep the names of the candidates confidential until the new police chief is announced, Gorton told Open Vallejo.

An older woman with gray hair and a headband speaks into a microphone during a town hall meeting. She is wearing a striped shirt and sunglasses hanging from her shirt. Participants sit in the background and listen attentively.An older woman with gray hair and a headband speaks into a microphone during a town hall meeting. She is wearing a striped shirt and sunglasses hanging from her shirt. Participants sit in the background and listen attentively.
Vallejo resident Kathleen Benjamin said she believes Vallejo’s next police chief should live within city limits. (Geoffrey King / Open Vallejo)

Murray, who took over as city manager last month, acknowledged that hiring and overseeing a police chief is one of his most important responsibilities. He said that while he understands the police department’s problems, he welcomes the community’s perspective in the search for a new chief.

“Frankly, I don’t have the life experience of all of you as community members who have been here and have been observers,” said Murray, who listened and took notes during the meeting. “I really need your participation and comments.”

Kathleen Benjamin said she believes the new police chief should live in Vallejo. A residency would help a police chief understand Vallejo’s diverse community and give him a greater interest in “doing the best for the community he lives in and serves,” she said.

“It makes a difference,” Benjamin said. “If they actually live in the Vallejo community, their job impacts their community.”

Conley said she wants a police chief with experience in a demanding department who can stand up to the powerful Vallejo Police Officers’ Association, which she said “essentially runs the city.”

She hopes for a leader who can recruit and guide new officers while weeding out the “bad apples,” Conley said.

“This is a really difficult position for everyone,” she said.