Politics and a Police Officer’s Death

David Corbett

For part of today, I will be away from my desk, attending the memorial service for Officer Jim Capoot (pronounced Ka Poo), who was killed in the line of duty on Thursday, November 17th, in my hometown, Vallejo, California. As council member Stephanie Gomes said in her comments at an earlier memorial conducted on November 20th, Officer Capoot wasn’t a hero just because of how he died, but even more because of how he lived.


He was shot and killed while pursuing a bank robbery suspect who fled on foot after Officer Capoot rammed his SUV in a PIT maneuver. Fellow officers who’d joined in the pursuit were only seconds away when Officer Capoot was shot dead. The other officers subdued the suspect, Henry Albert Smith, with tasers and took him into custody. An ex-felon who reportedly was having financial problems, the suspect was arraigned yesterday, and pled not guilty.

The Vallejo Police Department has shrunk to record low numbers recently due to budget constraints. Though small, it is a proud force and tightly knit. Officer Capoot’s loss was deeply felt, not just by his fellow officers, but by the entire community.

The Man

Born in Little Rock, Arkansas, Jim Capoot was an ex-marine who served in Vallejo as a motorcycle officer, motorcycle instructor, driving instructor and SWAT officer.

In 19 years with Vallejo PD, he received two Department Medals of Courage, two Life-Saving Medals, and other department commendations, including the department’s first Jeff Azuar Officer of the Year Award in 2000, named after the last Vallejo officer to die in the line of duty.

The father of three teenage girls, he volunteered to coach the girls’ basketball team at Vallejo High, and took them to the sectional championship. His players remembered him as much more than a coach, but someone who transformed their lives. One of the sayings that his star player applied to every aspect of her life: “Pain is temporary, but pride is forever.”

When two friends were killed in a motorcycle accident, he and his wife took in their two children, and Capoot built an addition to the family home to accommodate them.

He also coached soccer and softball, and when asked how he could take on so many responsibilities, he responded, “You don’t understand the need that’s out there.”

He was also a fiercely competitive dirt track racer, with a puckish sense of humor: He recruited a local donut shop to be the sponsor for his vehicle, Car 54.

Since the killing, citizens, neighbors, fellow coaches and members of the teams he coached have all stepped forward with heartfelt testimonials of what a selflessly devoted, inspirational and generous man he was. One of the last 911 calls he responded to was from a twelve-year-old boy who complained about his father’s disciplining him for not doing his homework. Capoot told the boy that he shouldn’t abuse 911 for non-emergencies, but then spent a few moments with him, telling him that he should obey his dad and work hard in school. The boy’s father said it made a huge impression on his son. “His teacher says, ever since it happened, it’s like he’s a new kid.”

The City

Officer Capoot’s death didn’t take place in a vacuum, obviously. Vallejo is a city of incredible contrasts that faces considerable challenges.

It once housed the largest US Navy shipyard overhauling nuclear submarines on the west coast. With closure of the shipyard in 1994, the city’s struggled to find a new direction.

Then disaster hit:

The foreclosure crisis struck like a nuclear bomb—with Vallejo ranked fourth nationally among the hardest hit cities. Abandoned houses now serve as meth labs, shooting galleries and squatter dens.

With the resulting crash in home prices, property tax revenue dwindled.

With the economic meltdown, businesses shuttered, sales taxes shrank.

Public employee wage and benefit packages—including those for police—became unsustainable, and mistrust between city government and the public service unions made compromise impossible.

In 2008, the city filed for bankruptcy—the largest California city ever to do so.

Draconian cuts in city services resulted, including a cut in the local police force from 153 to 90 officers. Because of these cuts, only six officers were on patrol—for a city of over 116,000 people—at the time of the midday bank robbery that led to Jim Capoot’s death.

The rancor over those cuts in fire and police services continues to divide the city today:

Supporters of the police and firefighters remain convinced the city sold them out.

Others refer to the public service unions (PSUs) as political machines feeding at the taxpayer trough.

The situation is worsened by a local newspaper that seems to prefer scare-mongering to factual reporting, going so far as to include burglary in violent crime numbers to make the latter appear worse than they are. (Crime is unquestionably a problem here, with a higher-than-average crime rate for the state, and a lower clear rate with the reduced staffing. But by at least one analysis, crime rates have actually been dropping the past several years, and are currently at their lowest rate in sixteen years. Fear of crime, however, and denigration of the city as a ghetto, continues to fester, due in no small part to the sorry state of local reportage.)

In the wake of Officer Capoot’s death, some are saying that members of the city council who weren’t solidly behind the police have blood on their hands for creating the low-staffing and minimal patrol numbers they believe contributed to his killing.

Their opponents point out that the police chief, after consulting with the VPOA, told the city council that the police union membership itself voted to keep pay and benefit rates near their current levels, and decided it would find a way to handle the cuts in staffing.

Police officers I’ve spoken to fear that a two-tier wage system would undermine the cohesion, high skill level and professionalism on the current force, which enjoys an excellent reputation with other local, state and federal law enforcement agencies.


Violent crime calls now consume patrol officers’ time, to the point even burglaries are largely neglected, unless in progress. (Some officers called the city a war zone, and three were quoted advising prospective residents not to relocate to Vallejo.)

Prostitution and drug dealing are conducted openly, and are only now once again receiving police attention due to the redeployment of the Street Crimes Unit.

Gangs exhibit more civic pride than the Chamber of Commerce:

At the same time, neighborhood watch groups have exploded, increasing in number from 10 to 350. Prostitution patrols and clean-up crews have helped turn back the rise in open prostitution and neighborhood blight. Citizen engagement is growing.

The political divide became apparent again in the most recent election, when a 1% sales tax increase was on the ballot. The PSUs and their supporters were in favor, hoping the additional revenue would help enhance police and firefighter staffing levels.

Opponents of the measure noted that the new funds were not earmarked in any way, and they feared that once again union pressure would draw all the new revenue toward public employee wages and benefits, and away from other city services that have been savaged in the recent austerity moves.

Sadly, it appears some intend to use Officer Capoot’s death as a weapon in this debate.

I don’t believe our police are overpaid, and this recent fatality should put that talk to rest for a good long while.

But that does not mean the city can return to its former profligate ways. The bankruptcy has created a stigma that has driven away business and investment, and this won’t turn around soon, certainly not in today’s economic environment.

I hope instead Jim Capoot’s example of selfless commitment to the community and volunteerism inspires others to follow suit—join their neighborhood watch group or a clean-up or anti-graffiti team, volunteer for the CORE Team or Citizens on Patrol or Vallejo Lamplighter. I can think of few better ways to honor this incredible man’s sacrifice.

* * * * *

I’m not sure how to ask readers to chime in this week. Just feel free to say whatever comes to mind. And thanks.

* * * * *

JukeBox Hero of the Week: Several video tributes to Officer Capoot appear on YouTube. This one is my particular favorite: 


27 thoughts on “Politics and a Police Officer’s Death

  1. Shizuka

    Union issues and all politics aside, I've never looked at a police officer or firefighter and thought they were overpaid. I'm stunned at the risks they take every day.

    Officer Capoot's life was a fight against apathy.
    And I admire you for participating in that fight, too.

  2. Allison Davis

    I remember hearing this on the news and it crushed me knowing the difficulties that the Vallejo police force was facing and the fact that you now had a personal connection to them. It was one of those horrible random events that shatters so much good by one stupid lazy felon. Life events like this are hard to carry and fathom. Recalls the trials of Job, the feeling of being "forsaken" by all the good, and wondering how to pick up the pieces. It's these horrible moments that make you hug the dog, reach out to someone, and do instead of put off until later. As crime writers, we write about death all the time, but not this kind of death. His life needs to be celebrated and emulated so thanks for this.

  3. Tom

    Thank you for telling this story, David. We can't all live as bravely as Officer Capoot, but I bet you've made many of us want to try.

  4. Pari Noskin

    What a beautiful tribute to an astounding police officer and community citizen.
    And what an important post about how politics and economics can get in the way of so much. Like you, I hope Officer Capoot's life is celebrated and that his tragic death is not misused . . .

  5. Reine

    David, this is a very moving blog and tribute to the man and the community. I hardly know how to respond to your loss.

    Eighty-plus years after my cousin Jimmy was killed in the line of duty in Boston, shot by a burglary suspect, the family mourns his loss. It doesn't stop. But it did help when his murderer died in prison, and my grandmother could stop going before the parole board to testify as to why he should not be released.


  6. PD Martin

    Hi David. This is just such a tragedy…made worse by the fact that he has three children PLUS is responsible for another two. And those poor kids, including the two who lost both their parents and have now lost another parent-figure. I hope the community gets behind his wife and family. Money can never compensate for someone's death but hopefully his wife isn't having to deal with her grief, her children's grief AND wondering how she'll make ends meet.

    Moving post.

  7. lil Gluckstern

    Wonderful tribute. Living in Half Moon Bay, we're starting to see senseless violence here too. I used to think sleepy HMB, but not any more. I ache for the family of Officer Capoot and the townspeople of Vallejo. This is truly awful-politics are running our towns, rather than common sense. I'm listening to the news as I write, and nothing is inspiring now. I have tears in my eyes for all the suffering that I see being endured by too many people. And too few held to account.

  8. David Corbett

    Allison, Tom, Rari, Reine & PD:

    Reine, so sorry to hear about your cousin. I'm sure the pain never does go away, and I appreciate your perspective on this–perhaps more than ever right now.

    Thanks to all for the kind words. I just got back from the memorial service. There were apparently 5,000 of us there, a number of officers from other departments, the governor, but an amazing number of citizens as well. Thank God I had sunglasses, but more than once I had tears rolling down my cheeks. The girls who played for him were especially eloquent, as were his brother-in-law and one of this daughters, who like the leatherneck's kid she is, fought through her tears and delivered an incredible testimonial for her dad.

    I learned three of his characteristic phrases were: No excuses. Carry on. And Hoo rah, Devil Dogs!

    Oh, and another: "I'm dedicated to my job, and devoted to my family." By all accounts, totally true.

    i learned he was the last marine to stand sentry at the entrance to Mare Island Naval Base.

    I learned more about his humor, his huge spirit, his refusal to accept less than total effort and his utter selflessness. He picked up his players and made sure they got to school — many didn't have fathers in their lives, and Jim Capoot made a huge difference — and had an honor roll for players who maintained above a 3.0 average.

    But I also learned that in the wage and benefit negotiations that are coming up next year, the battle lines are already being drawn, and not gently. One of the fiscal hardliners has already received the "blood on your hands" emails, and someone in city government told me that unless wage and benefit packages are cut — including for police — the city will careen into bankruptcy again, which will be ruinous. The only chance the city has of real recovery is to show it can put its financial house in order, and yet how can you ask men and women who put their lives on the line to take serious cuts in pay and benefits when the example of what they're up against is now more vivid than ever.

    You have an unstoppable force about to hit an unmovable object. What happens to a city after impact? I guess we'll find out.

  9. David Corbett

    Katherine and lil:

    Thanks for the attaboys. Lil, I know HMB well, a good friend lives there, and I can barely imagine it as anything but sleepy indeed. And foggy.

    The problem with politics is it too often conforms to Henry Adams' description of it as the systematic organization of hatreds. And the two sides in this fight have really developed a deep-seated animosity, with the police taking it personally — how can they not, their livelihoods are on the line, their ability to provide for their families, their safety — and the other side getting sick of being called cop haters.

    But that's the ugly side of this. A couple more things about Officer Capoot that stuck with me.

    He raised his daughters the way his marine/cop dad raised him — a Capoot never quits. When one of his daughters once said something was just too hard, all he had to say was — What's your last name? — and she turned around and went back at it.

    the night he was killed, the officer who drove his widow home remembered her saying: We're Capoots, and we'll carry on.

    The memorial was indeed a celebration of his life. And yet I kept coming back to what he did, what the other guy did, how and why we lost this wonderful man — and he is gone now, and will never come back. Call me small-hearted, but I wanted one or two fewer musical interludes and just one person to step up and say it plain. remind us all of how fucked up this is, and no celebration of life can make that right. God what a loss — and for what?

  10. Reine

    David, what an amazing tribute! It does my heart good to hear of such love and support.

    I hope our towns, in trouble like Vallejo, can come together in crisis and devise a humane and viable plan.

    Jimmy had two little boys and a little girl when he was killed. His boys, Jimmy Jr. and Tommy, both became detectives on the same police force. Tommy went to night school and became an attorney (think you read his obit). Jimmy's little girl Ruthie had a son, Greg, who is a police officer (and keeps me in line). Greg's children are artists – go figure. I was a cop for awhile. You know, had to try it, but . . . I guess there was a takeover by those humanities genes filtering in from the Harrington side in our generation. Although there are cousins Leo, Lloyd, and Jerry, and one or two others.

    I never met cousin Jimmy, as he died long before I was born. But when I saw his photo, hidden away in his mother's (my great-grandmother's) bureau, I recognized him. That is how large he is in our family. He is so big we have to keep his photo hidden. If we don't no one can stop talking about him and all the fallout. Of those who cannot stop crying, most are gone.

    Strange happenings surround the recently established (2005) Boston Police Memorial. When the dedication was being planned, I received an email from a stranger, not affiliated with the BPD, asking me if my aunts were going to attend . . . and "oh, by the way" could he have their phone numbers and addresses. My aunts were so frightened they did not attend.

  11. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    I'm glad you posted about this, David. It's a heartbreaking story. Must be very difficult to see this happening to your own home town.

  12. MJ

    Oh David, another post that hits me in the heart. As the best posts do. Someday I'll buy you a Scotch and thank you for reminding me to hit straight, and hard.

    My grandfather survived being a Detroit cop and homicide detective – physically – but the crap and the constant downslide got to him and let's just say that a variety of life things rotted. And we're currently the murder capitol for violent deaths of 80 year old women. One bound, throat slit, in her home maybe 2-3 miles from mine, and one burned beyond recognition in her car – in Highland Park, MI, home of Henry Ford's Model T. Nice little old ladies from the 'burbs.

    I had an accountant yell at me today for not assisting in a fraud for a wealthy client who sure doesn't need that fraud to survive (I was positively obstructionist!). What the F is going on in this world…..

    Office Capoot was a heck of a guy. Wish I'd known him. Wish I could help his family.

  13. KDJames

    Moving post, David. It's good that we have men like you who can put a life into words, so we can remember men like Jim Capoot. I'm sorry for your loss.

  14. Katherine C.

    Wow. Officer Capot clearly is the type of person we all aspire to be. My heart goes out to his family and all those whose lives he had such an impact on as they struggle with his loss.

  15. Kristi

    Great post. I've been following this story in the news. I was a crime reporter in Contra Costa County when Officer Jeff Azuar was killed and remember how terribly tragic that was.
    That doesn't seem very long ago and it seems unfair the city has lost two officers in such a short time.

  16. David Corbett

    MJ, KD, Katherine & Kristi:

    Sorry I'm so late in replying — I had a meeting concerning a couple work opportunities and didn't get back till late.

    MJ: I was always amazed at how many of or business clients especially thought Terri's job was to tell them how they could "legally" break the law. Isn't that what lawyers do? It's a shame that mindset, which is despairingly widespread, doesn't get discussed when we talk about "crime."

    KD: Thanks. I'm one of many, and I didn't do half the job some of the men and women who spoke at his memorial did.

    Katherine: He was an incredible inspiration to virtually everyone he met — and now to a number of us who have only learned of him because of his death. It reminds you how pwerful human determination and love can be — I know it sounds hokey, but he was hte proof.

    Kristi: I remember Jeff Azuar's death well. My wife and I took flowers down to the police station. The situations are much different. Azuar was killed by a meth addict informant who thought his handler was trying to kill him. The handler told none of this to the officers who went to serve a warrant on the guy. The informant thought the cops were coming to finish him off. But you probably know this. Hamrick, the detective, wasn't a terrble guy but he made a horrible series of judgments that led to Azuar's death, and he hasn't fared well since.

    But Jim Capoot is a more traditional line-of-duty type shooting, and it speaks to the level of violent crime in Vallejo. It will therefore serve easily as a bloody flag to those who want to use it that way. I think that's unfortunate, even as I understand both the emotion and the logic behind it.

  17. Rae

    I’m late joining, but wanted to tell you how much I appreciated your post.

    I’m one who thinks that appropriately staffed police and fire departments are essential, and that those brave men and women need to be paid big bucks to keep us all safe and alive. These are the people who run in as we run out – it’s that simple. I do think there’s a conversation to be had about entitlements; but that’s a political issue that’s probably not appropriate here.

    There was a really interesting article in Vanity Fair recently about Vallejo. It was clear that many of the city’s employees were hanging on by their fingernails, and were continuing to do their jobs out of love and commitment, in spite of the huge challenges they face.

    I hope Officer Capoot’s family will be OK, and that they’re getting all the support they need and deserve from the community.

  18. David Corbett


    I saw the VF article and have printed it out but haven't gotten to it yet.

    Agree that staffing and wage levels should be generous, but this is a poor town, and a return to bankruptcy would be disastrous. We will have to find some way to deal with this problem. I don't think we can trim staffing any further, but from what I'm hearing that will mean wage and benefit concessions from the police (the firefighters have already negotiated a new contract along those lines). I know the police don't want that, and they don't want new hires paid significantly lower tan existing officers. They're afraid of what that could do to the talent pool and force cohesion.

    It's not a pretty problem, and I fear the solution won't win any beauty awards either. What I'm really afraid of, though, is the process. I hope we can avoid the war we went through over bankruptcy. But memories are long. And bitter. On both sides.

  19. Susan Shea

    Sorry this is a day late but I wanted to congratulate you for a post that's a clear and balanced sketch of Vallejo's recent history. The city has so much promise geographically, historically, and socially, but it's been a perfect storm of trouble since the Mare Island facility closed with no master plan in place. I've always wondered why no one looked to – and pressured – the developers who purchased the old Navy site to do more for the city early on when the situation was hopeful.

    Time to remind readers that Done for a Dime is one helluva story about a fictional city not unlike Vallejo.

  20. Susan Shea

    Sorry this is a day late but I wanted to congratulate you for a post that's a clear and balanced sketch of Vallejo's recent history. The city has so much promise geographically, historically, and socially, but it's been a perfect storm of trouble since the Mare Island facility closed with no master plan in place. I've always wondered why no one looked to – and pressured – the developers who purchased the old Navy site to do more for the city early on when the situation was hopeful.

    Time to remind readers that Done for a Dime is one helluva story about a fictional city not unlike Vallejo.

  21. Kevin V. Dixon

    This article captures the essence of the man and his life. Officer Jim Capoot will be missed by many people in Vallejo, and the surroundings cities. It should not take an incident like this to unite a community, or make us see the need for change. I appreciate what Officer Jim Capoot did for the City of Vallejo and myself; he risked his life, so that mine could be safe.

Comments are closed.