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

Vallejo officials are gathering community feedback before soon launching a nationwide search for the next leader 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 members of the Bob Hall and Associates recruiting firm hosted a meeting on Saturday morning in Vallejo’s city council chambers to solicit feedback from residents about the city’s next police chief. The city expects to select a final candidate by October.

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

More than a dozen people attended the community meeting. Several residents said they were hopeful the city can find strong, qualified candidates capable of restoring trust and improving the department’s relationship with the public, changing a toxic culture within the department, and making forward progress on a halting effort to reform the agency by the California Department of Justice. 

“The truth is we’re going to need someone with a thick skin and someone who’s determined to right this ship,” Vallejo resident Gary Wettstein told recruiters during the public comment period of the meeting. 

Vallejo police have been under scrutiny from the state justice department for at least four years due to their high rate of shootings. Thirty people have died in police shootings since 2000 in Vallejo, a city of roughly 125,000 people, Open Vallejo research shows. In 2020, this newsroom revealed a tradition in which a clique of officers would 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, mirroring nationwide staffing and recruitment challenges that have strained law enforcement agencies across the country.

“Sadly, the relationship between the Vallejo Police Department and the public has been tumultuous 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 speaking during a town hall meeting. Several attendees are seated in the background, and a man at a podium listens. The room is well-lit with overhead lights and a large clock displaying the time.
Vallejo residents who attended the town hall said they wanted a more responsive and equitable police force. (Geoffrey King / Open Vallejo)

A permanent chief is expected to replace Interim Police Chief Jason Ta, who took over the department after Williams, the city’s first Black police chief, resigned abruptly in November 2022. The next chief will take the helm as the city works to implement a sweeping set of police reforms outlined in a settlement agreement reached in April with the California DOJ, after the state agency abandoned a lawsuit against the city to impose a consent decree. The lawsuit followed a failed collaborative reform effort between the DOJ and the city.

Joe Gorton and Carl Charles, recruiters who both previously worked as police chiefs in California, led Saturday’s community workshop. Another community meeting is scheduled for July 25. The recruiters said they are also meeting with various stakeholder groups in the coming weeks, including the Vallejo Police Officers’ Association, the American Civil Liberties Union, and leaders from local schools, businesses, and faith-based organizations. 

A man in a checkered shirt sits attentively, holding a notebook, during a town hall meeting. Another man in a suit is blurred in the background. Computer monitors and desks are visible, indicating a formal meeting setting.
Newly-appointed Vallejo City Manager Andrew Murray acknowledged that the police chief search will represent a significant early test of his leadership. (Geoffrey King / Open Vallejo)

After gathering feedback, the city will post the job opening in July and begin screening candidates in August. Three panels made up of law enforcement professionals, community members, and city staff will interview candidates in September and provide their feedback to the city manager. Murray will then interview finalists and make a selection, with a decision expected by October, according to the 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. Attendees are seated in the background, listening attentively.
Vallejo resident Kathleen Benjamin said she believed Vallejo’s next police chief should live within city limits. (Geoffrey King / Open Vallejo)

Murray, who started as city manager last month, acknowledged that hiring and supervising a police chief is among his most important responsibilities. He said that while he understands the issues facing the police department, he welcomes the community’s perspective in the search for a new chief. 

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

Kathleen Benjamin said she believes the new police chief should live in Vallejo. Residency would help a chief understand Vallejo’s diverse community and give them a greater stake in “doing the best for the community in which they live and they serve,” she said. 

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

Conley said she wants a chief with experience working in a challenging department who can push back on the powerful Vallejo Police Officers’ Association, which she said is “essentially running the city.” 

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

“It’s a really tough position for anyone to take on,” she said.

Anna Bauman is an investigative reporter with Open Vallejo.