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.
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.”
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.
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I’m not sure how to ask readers to chime in this week. Just feel free to say whatever comes to mind. And thanks.
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JukeBox Hero of the Week: Several video tributes to Officer Capoot appear on YouTube. This one is my particular favorite: