American Canyon and Vallejo police share border

Kelly Doren/Register illustration

To someone zipping along on Highway 29, American Canyon, Napa County’s fastest-growing new city, merges seamlessly with Vallejo, Solano County’s biggest, much older city.

For American Canyon, this visual blending can create public safety image problems. Vallejo has a reputation for frequent murders and a high crime rate. A passerby could wonder if American Canyon is similarly beset with lawlessness.

American Canyon police say they are busy, but mostly with garden-variety crimes such as shoplifts, assaults and traffic stops. Theirs is a safer community, officers report.

According to the latest statistics, the 23-member force answered more than 18,600 calls in 2011 — about 120 more than in 2010. In addition, officers responded to 50 requests for assistance in Vallejo, said American Canyon Police Chief Jean Donaldson.

But even with the city’s close proximity to Vallejo, a city four times American Canyon’s size, Donaldson said American Canyon remains safe.

Vallejo had 18 homicides in 2011, records show, including a police officer who was killed in November. American Canyon had no homicides.

“Our crime rate compared to other jurisdictions is pretty darn low,” said Donaldson. “Statistically, I think we have a safe city.”

“It’s busy,” American Canyon Officer Mike Hunter said of police activity on the Napa side of the county line. Yet Hunter keeps the scanner in his patrol car tuned to the Vallejo police frequency.

The city of Vallejo has  91 police — about 37 percent fewer than in 2007, according to the Vallejo Police Union.

This reduction in staffing has increased the need for support from surrounding police departments, said Mathew Mustard, a union representative. “We gratefully appreciate the assistance that American Canyon and other surrounding agencies provide, but we see the issues that the taxpayers of these surrounding jurisdictions may have,” he said.

American Canyon pays the Napa County Sheriff’s Office $4.9 million annually to provide law enforcement. Donaldson is the city’s police chief as well as a sheriff’s captain.

Of the 580-plus arrests made last year in American Canyon, about two-thirds were people who did not live in the city, Donaldson estimated.

These arrests include people traveling on Highway 29, American Canyon’s de facto Main Street that also doubles as a primary access road for people going in and out of the Napa Valley.

 “American Canyon is a natural funnel,” Hunter said.

While American Canyon hasn’t had any homicide in recent years, the city’s police responded twice in 2011 to fatal shootings in Vallejo, police said.

Two American Canyon officers were among 10 law enforcement personnel involved in a February 2011 fatal shooting of a robbery suspect on Corcoran Street, a block from Flosden Road in American Canyon.

That incident remains under investigation, according to the Solano County district attorney’s office. The American Canyon officers involved in the shooting were back on duty within a week, Donaldson said.

American Canyon police were also among the officers who responded in November to the fatal shooting of Vallejo police officer James Capoot, who was chasing a bank robbery suspect.

Donaldson said Vallejo police are as likely to respond to a request for assistance in American Canyon. “It’s a two-way street,” he said.

There are about 20 identified gang members who reside in American Canyon, but gang-related incidents are a rare occurrence, police said.

Many of the arrests are shoplifters at the Walmart Supercenter. “They have a very good loss-prevention program,” Donaldson said of Walmart.

Police tend to arrest Walmart shoplifters and book them at the Napa County jail on burglary charges. “We want to discourage criminals from coming here,” Donaldson said. “The word is out.”

Napa native Ryan Woolworth is among the sheriff’s deputies who have volunteered to work in American Canyon.  Woolworth, a member of the Napa County Sheriff’s SWAT team, said he likes the faster pace.

He recently volunteered to become the department’s new community resource officer, whose duties include working with neighborhoods and teaching the Drug Abuse Resistance Education program, or DARE.

“I love it here,” he said as he patrolled the old Basalt Plant property, where police recently arrested four Napa kids with 27 spray cans.

“One of the biggest problems in American Canyon is traffic,” Woolworth said. “It’s difficult for us to get around.”

Mayor Leon Garcia praises the city’s police. So do others, including City Councilwoman Belia Ramos Bennett, who notes that there are virtually no gang problems in the city. Police maintain a high profile and the district attorney is  aggressive in prosecuting criminals, she said.

“(The American Canyon Police Department) is extremely effective in controlling crime, despite our proximity to Vallejo,” Ramos Bennett said.  “Unfortunately, because of their fiscal woes, the city of Vallejo has had to cut back funding for law enforcement services. However, in (American Canyon) we have been able to continue to focus our resources on law enforcement and keep our city safe.

“For example, in 2009 Vallejo had one burglary for every 50 residents. The same year, (American Canyon) had one burglary for every 175 residents. ... 350 (percent) better,” she said.

Napa County Sheriff Doug Koford, who is retiring in April, became American Canyon’s first police chief in 2001 during a period of rapid growth. The city, which had 9,700 residents in 2000, more than doubled to 19,700 residents in 2010, according to the California Department of Finance.

American Canyon was a magnet for people from all over the Bay Area who wanted a safe community and more affordable housing. “A new street would be put in daily,” Koford said.

Newcomers demand a high level of service, Koford said. “We worked long hours to make sure they got that,” he said.

Because American Canyon was striving to have its own identity, Koford had officers wear blue uniforms, not the tan uniforms of the sheriff’s office. “Patrol are the most visible form of government there is,” he said.

How do residents like their police force?

“I think they’re visible in the community,” said Dennis Ciriaco, the father of three with a baby on the way. “I feel secure, safe.”

Ciriaco, who moved from San Carlos to American Canyon in 2007 in part to be closer to his family, said he worries about a recent rash of residential burglaries.

Sharon Rucker, a single mom who moved to American Canyon in 2010 with two sons, said she found more crime in American Canyon than anticipated.

About three months after she moved to The Lodge near Walmart Supercenter, her van was stolen on Thanksgiving from the apartment complex. The van was found in Richmond, but she had to spend about $900 to reclaim it and to have it towed. Repairs cost another $350, she said.

“I was sickened by it. It was devastating,” said Rucker. The thieves stole her sons’ toys, the family’s CDs, and left cigarette butts and garbage, she said. “It was dirty. It was degrading,” she said.

Rucker praised the police force. “I think that they do as best they can,” she said. “They have a great community presence. It just seems like they try to stay on top of things.”

One officer took the time to talk to her son Alexz to reassure him he was safe after police responded to an apartment break-in at her complex, she said.

Yet she worries about crime from Vallejo trickling into her new community and wishes more money would be allocated for law enforcement, given that Highway 29 runs through town.

Another resident, Emma Ramirez, who moved from Vallejo to American Canyon with her family three months ago, said she loves American Canyon.

“It’s so much better than Vallejo,” she said.

Her 13-year-old daughter, Jacqueline, said she likes to see the police cars. “It makes you feel safe,” she said.

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