Shawny Williams was sworn in as police chief in Vallejo, California last November after a 26-year career with the San Jose Police Department, where he retired as a deputy chief.

Chief Williams took charge of a police department that has gradually climbed out of an economic crisis. Vallejo was hit especially hard by the national recession of 2008.  A Washington Post article described the city’s plight:

After this working-class port city became the largest in America to declare bankruptcy,  crime and prostitution surged as the police force was thinned by 40 percent. Firehouses were shuttered, and funding for libraries and senior centers was slashed.

During happier times, Vallejo’s salaries for city employees had ballooned, with a number of top officials making $200,000 or $300,000. More than 80 percent of the municipal budget went toward compensation.

The city’s credit rating dropped to junk status, and as part of its bankruptcy settlement, Vallejo paid only five cents for every dollar it owed to bondholders.

But then this city of 116,000 began to reinvent itself. The police went high-tech, investing $500,000 in cameras across the city that allow officers to monitor a larger area than they could before. The department deputized citizens to participate in law enforcement by sharing tips on Facebook and Twitter. The number of neighborhood watch groups jumped from 15 to 350. 

[By 2012], the city’s finances [were] doing so well that a federal judge released it from bankruptcy. 

Chief Williams spoke with PERF Executive Director Chuck Wexler about his time with the San Jose Police Department, and why Vallejo recently declared a public safety emergency because of a spike in crime since the COVID-19 pandemic began.

Chuck Wexler:  Chief, can you tell me about your background?

Chief Shawny Williams: I was born and raised in San Francisco. I’m the oldest of five, and my Mom and Dad come from large families – each was one of twelve siblings. That shaped my world view.

My Mom, who unfortunately just passed on Memorial Day, taught me early on that one of my key responsibilities was taking care of my brothers and sisters. She said, “You’re the oldest, you set an example, and you take care of them.” And growing up in that kind of environment, I had a lot of aunts and uncles, and the house was busy all the time. My Dad was a carpenter, and my Mom was a social worker and then a probation officer.

I grew up in a sports family. I had an uncle who played in the NBA. I played sports through high school and college, then played international basketball in Mexico and Australia.

Wexler: Where did you start your policing career?

Chief Williams: I started in San Jose 26 years ago. I left as the deputy chief in charge of investigations.

Wexler:  What did you take away from your time in San Jose?

Chief Williams:  Having a multidisciplinary approach and working with community partners is key. In San Jose we knew we can’t arrest our way out of any problem. We have to develop community partnerships. You do that through prevention, intervention, and enforcement. Your officers have to be grounded in good community policing programs, and you need to develop those partnerships all the time.

You have to work with community members to establish trust and build relationships. You do that by coming together. You can’t do that at a distance. You need to have those meetings and follow-up meetings, and continually measure your progress to make sure you’re moving forward.

Wexler:  What was it like working with San Jose’s rotation policy?

Chief Williams:  In San Jose, after you do your street time in the Bureau of Field Operations for three years, you have the option of testing for a specialized assignment. There are different specialized assignments, like being a motor officer, working on the SWAT team, working homicide or robbery, or school liaison officer. You put in your application and there’s a written and oral test, then you’re put on a list. If you’re selected, you go to that assignment.

Different assignments have timeframes for how long you can stay. For example, crime scene is a more specialized assignment, so you can be there for five years. Then you rotate back to patrol for at least a year before you can take the next test for another assignment.

These multiple job assignments help you develop as an officer. It helps to develop the organization as well, because you’re rotating expertise around the department.

That’s something I firmly believe in. In order to develop organizational capacity, you need a good, solid rotation policy. A goal for me in the city of Vallejo is to have a rotation policy so officers can develop different skills – administrative skills, special operations skills, detective skills. You need all of that to develop the next level.

Wexler:  Tell me about some of the issues facing Vallejo.

Chief Williams:  We had a bankruptcy in 2008. At that time, we had about 156 officers. During the bankruptcy crisis, the staffing level for sworn officers went down to about 78. But the amount of work remained the same. That created a crisis, and it wasn’t the fault of the officers or the department.

Prior to that, the officers were mostly laterals, because Vallejo was one of the top-paying police jobs in the state. So it was difficult to get into Vallejo – until the bankruptcy occurred.

Like many chiefs, we face problems of trust and legitimacy with our community. There’s been a number of officer-involved shootings in Vallejo between that 2008 bankruptcy and now, and that’s created a lot of distrust.

One of the key areas I’m focused on is relationship-building, and building trust and legitimacy, both internally and externally. Internally because I’m a new chief, people don’t know me, and they need to understand my philosophy and my ethics. I’m here to care for and support them, while also building strong community partnerships.

I’ve always said there are two things we need to do: reduce crime and the fear of crime, and build strong community partnerships. If we can do those things, we’re doing pretty well.

We also need to increase accountability internally. That comes through exceptional training, active supervision, and strong policy and oversight.

Demonstrators at Vallejo police headquarters on June 22.

Wexler:  Why did the City Council declare a state of emergency?

Chief Williams:  We have 24 use-of-force lawsuits, and the exposure is about $50 million. We also have a serious spike in crime. We’re up to 22 homicides, and at this time last year it was 9. And we’ve had at least 220 shootings to date this year, with about 358 victims. So violent crime is up, and that’s an urgent problem.

A group came in to audit the police department and in May released a report with 45 recommendations. We also have a collaborative reform effort with the California Department of Justice. So we have requirements that we need to meet to reform our police department. That needs to be done without delay.

This declaration allows us to move those reforms forward, and for me to restructure the executive team to help me move forward with these reforms. As it stands now, I’m down two captains, two lieutenants, and my assistant chief had to resign because his daughter is on hospice care and he needs to be there. Essentially it’s me and a captain with a lot of demands we need to meet. The declaration of emergency will help me get the necessary resources to move these things forward.

Wexler:  How do you motivate people under these circumstances?

Chief Williams:  I try to focus people on the mission. They need to focus on taking care of their families. And we have a wellness app and peer support groups so that we can focus on the wellness of our officers.

You need to give people things to do, especially during a crisis. The Operation PEACE initiative we launched is a four-part plan to reduce crime and build community partnerships. We’ve redeployed people to get guns off the street and reduce violence. We’re also improving our technology, including adding automated license plate readers in strategic locations throughout the city. And we develop state, federal, and local partnerships because we’re so lightly staffed. The U.S. Marshal, the FBI task force, ATF, and other partners are working with us to reduce violent crime.

There’s also what we call the “4 C’s” – Cops, Clergy, Council, and Community Members – working together and forming partnerships for prevention and intervention. That four-part plan is paying off right now, and it’s refocusing our officers’ mental and emotional energy into something other than thinking about the problems that are occurring.

Wexler:  What are the causes of shootings and murders in Vallejo?

Chief Williams:  As cops, we know that poverty is persistent in certain areas. And violence and other types of crime are persistent in certain areas. You have to take education, employment, housing, and the generational trauma that has occurred in certain areas into consideration when you look at crime. We need to understand that we can’t arrest our way out of that problem. We need to do crime prevention, such as through early childhood education, and intervention with teenagers who might otherwise get involved in crime.

That’s what we’re doing with Operation PEACE. We’re looking at our prolific gun offenders. We know that in certain areas it’s just a few individuals who cause a majority of crime. So we’ve focused on that. We got 37 guns off the street the first month of Operation PEACE and, over the last month, we saw a 56% reduction in violent crime and about a 36% reduction in property crime.

Wexler:  Do you think the COVID pandemic has impacted shootings and murders in Vallejo?

Chief Williams:  We’ve seen an increase in violent crime in major cities. I believe there is some type of correlation between that increase and what’s occurring economically, especially in the areas that are adversely impacted by poverty.

Wexler:  Have you had demonstrations and calls for reform in Vallejo?

Chief Williams: We saw a huge push in the month of June when, unfortunately, we had an officer-involved shooting. We had many demonstrations during that timeframe. Those have subsided a lot.

The California Department of Justice was called into Vallejo before I arrived here, and we were able to develop a collaborative partnership to look at our policies and practices and see where we can do better.

And the 45 recommendations made by the group that audited our department have been a good starting point for me. We can use that information to begin to work on some of the things we need to reform.

Wexler:   Do you have any final thoughts to share?

Chief Williams:  We’re all facing many of the same problems. I think it’s really important that we build the relationships in our communities. If we can do that, we can begin to get the support that we need to reduce crime.


The PERF Critical Issues Report is part of the Critical Issues in Policing project, supported by the Motorola Solutions Foundation.


PERF also is grateful to the Howard G. Buffett Foundation for supporting this work.