When Shawny Williams joined the Vallejo, California, police department in the fall of 2019, he was taking the reins of a police force known for its use of deadly force.
By the time Williams was sworn in that November, Vallejo officers had fatally shot 18 people in less than a decade, according to KTVU. Between 2005 and 2017, the Bay Area community of 122,000 people had the third-highest rate of police killings per capita in the state, an NBC Bay Area investigation found.
“Vallejo is like a distillation of the problems that a lot of places, I think, are facing,” Geoffrey King, the founder of nonprofit news site Open Vallejo, told W. Kamau Bell in Sunday’s “United Shades of America” episode, “Policing the Police.”
“There was a 2016 research survey by Pew of something like 7,800 law enforcement personnel all over the country,” King continued. “They found that 73% of law enforcement officers have never fired their weapon, ever. Forty percent of the Vallejo police department had been in at least one shooting [according to Open Vallejo research], and about a third of those had been in two or more.”
That includes now-fired Vallejo officer Ryan McMahon, who was involved in two fatal shootings, CNN affiliate KGO reports. In 2018, McMahon shot 33-year-old Ronell Foster during a confrontation over a missing headlamp on Foster’s bike. The following February, McMahon was one of six officers who opened fire on Willie McCoy, the 20-year-old who’d appeared to fall asleep in a fast food drive-through. The officers, who’d arrived to perform a wellness check, said they thought McCoy was reaching for a gun in his lap.
The string of fatal shootings by Vallejo officers, including the killing of 21-year-old Angel Ramos in 2017, led to protests as families of the deceased demanded answers and accountability, the Times-Herald of Vallejo reported.
Williams, who is the city’s first Black police chief, seemed to acknowledge this history at his swearing-in as he pledged to rebuild trust with a skeptical community, according to KGO. “Today,” Williams said, “we chart a new direction.”
Seven months later, however, it was clear how challenging that new direction was going to be.
On June 2, amid nationwide protests in response to George Floyd’s death at the hands of police, 22-year-old Sean Monterrosa was shot and killed by a Vallejo officer in a Walgreens parking lot. Police, who were investigating reports of looting, said a hammer in Monterrosa’s pocket was mistaken for a gun.
In July, the troubling news continued: a report from Open Vallejo alleged that some Vallejo officers were bending the tips of their police badges to mark fatal shootings while on the job.
Williams called for an investigation, and in October declared a public safety emergency to speed up the process of implementing reforms, according to CNN affiliate KPIX.
As ongoing calls for police accountability stretch all the way to the White House, Bell sat down for a virtual interview with Williams to learn more about how he’s addressing change in his department.
“There are tangible changes that we’re making now,” Williams said. “I wanted a stronger body-worn camera policy, from ‘should’ activate to ‘shall’ activate on every contact. We had that change happen. … We’re working on our standards of conduct and ethics policy; I believe cultural change starts with that. “It’s important to me that we approach these community concerns with empathy and compassion,” he continued. “Change takes time. I can’t change the past, but I can impact the future — and that’s what we’re focused on.”