The California Attorney General is Investigating Sean Monterrosa’s Killing. His Sisters Are Also Fighting For Systemic Change
Monterrosa, 22, was killed by a police officer who had a history of shooting at civilians. His sisters are pushing for a law they believe could have saved him.
When Derek Chauvin was found guilty for the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis last month, debates erupted over whether the verdict represented justice being served, change, basic accountability, or perhaps none of the above. But there’s no disputing the rarity of the outcome. On-duty police officers fatally shoot around 1,000 civilians each year, but since 2005, only about 140 officers have been arrested for doing so, let alone charged or convicted.
On June 2, 2020, just over a week after Floyd’s killing, 22-year-old Sean Monterrosa was shot to death in California by a Vallejo Police Department officer named Jarrett Tonn. The aftermath to Monterrosa’s killing has been far more typical of how America handles police violence. Tonn kept his job, despite three prior incidents where he shot at a civilian—in one case firing 18 rounds. He will probably never be charged for a crime in conjunction with Monterrosa’s death. The Solano County district attorney recused herself from an investigation, and former California Attorney General Xavier Becerra declined her office’s request to investigate the killing, focusing instead on the police department’s unauthorized destruction of the windshield that Tonn fired through.
In the absence of official redress for Monterrosa’s killing, his sisters have sought it themselves. Ashley and Michelle Monterrosa have become organizers and policy experts in the months since their brother’s death. They are lobbying hard for Senate Bill 2, which would strip officers of their law enforcement certification in cases of “serious misconduct.” California has had 1,300 officer-involved shootings since 2013, but it is one of just four states in the nation that lack the ability to decertify police officers. The bill is facing steep opposition from law enforcement groups.
The sisters are also supporting two pieces of legislation that attempt to address the financial and emotional ramifications of police use of force: Senate Bill 299, which would extend the state’s victims’ compensation fund to victims of law enforcement violence, and Assembly Bill 95, which would strengthen bereavement leave.
None of this will heal the harm done to the Monterrosa family. “Justice would have been him here,” Michelle told The Appeal. But the Monterrosa sisters hope their work might help prevent other families from having to experience what they have gone through over the last 11 months. Given Tonn’s history of shooting at civilians, Ashley and Michelle believe that their brother might be alive if decertification had been enacted earlier. And material support for victims of police violence could have helped the family during a year in which Sean’s parents have had to find time to grieve in between working seven days a week.
The Monterrosa family had also requested a meeting with newly appointed attorney general Rob Bonta, in hopes that he would use the power of his office to investigate Sean’s death. On May 13, just a few weeks before the one-year anniversary of Sean’s killing, Bonta met with the family before publicly announcing that he will investigate the case—arguably the first acknowledgement from a state official that a grave injustice took place that day. Ashley and Michelle are also hoping that Bonta will review the cases of other families killed by Vallejo Police Department officers. “We’re only 10 months in this fight—there’s families who are 10 years, 20 years in,” Ashley said.
Ashley and Michelle spoke to The Appeal in mid-April, as protests again roiled Minneapolis after the police killing of Daunte Wright. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
How are you both doing?
Michelle: It’s been 10 months, but it still feels like it’s June 2 for us every day.
Ashley: Every day.
M: That feeling will never go, no matter how much time goes. Just seeing what’s happening in Minnesota right now … I don’t feel like California is enraged in the same way. For us, that’s why it’s so crucial to pass decertification right now. Just the other day, we went up to the state Capitol to testify in support of SB 2, because if that law was implemented maybe 10-plus years ago, Sean would still be here.
A: And we wouldn’t have bad cops like the Fatal 14 from Vallejo all still working.
M: It’s a lot.
I don’t know if you feel like there’s any form of justice for what happened to Sean, but what would go some way towards making you feel like people are hearing you?
M: Justice would have been him here, right?
A: Sean getting his due process. Just [looking at] the video itself—Sean didn’t even get a chance.
M: Obviously, we want some sort of justice. To hold this officer to a higher standard—because the accountability they talk about, these officers aren’t even held to that. So: looking into the whole case itself, prosecuting and firing Jarrett Tonn and all the officers involved. The president of the Vallejo police union has now been fired, Michael Nichelini, but he still holds the president of the police union title. If Sean was here, he would want the same for himself, and now we’re just doing the footwork for him.
A: We could go protest and hit the streets and do all these direct actions, but it’s meaningless if we’re not working with policy and legislation on the backside, and that’s why we’ve been really supporting SB 2 to decertify bad cops. And then we’ve also been supporting SB 299, so families that are affected by police violence get victims’ compensation—because families affected by police violence and regular gun violence aren’t considered victims to get any type of compensation for housing and burial fees. Most families have to rely on GoFundMe for things like that. Really, what we’re trying to do is ensure that there is a better pathway to holding police accountable and getting resources to families affected by police violence that don’t have access to counseling. Or families that have to live in the house that their son was murdered in, and they have to relive their trauma every day.
Former California AG Xavier Becerra declined to conduct an investigation into your brother’s death. How do you evaluate his office’s response to Sean’s killing?
M: It hurt to see Becerra and Newsom say names [of people who were killed by police] outside of the state, and meanwhile, here is Sean, Erik, and Andrés being murdered in a three-week span, and they wouldn’t even say anything. Our attorney John Burris has been reaching out to Becerra’s office for, I think, the past five years for him to investigate the local police department. It wasn’t until Sean was murdered that he agreed. He said he would look at the whole investigation—
A: But then he backtracked to say that he was just going to look into the destruction of evidence, like my brother being murdered didn’t really matter [compared] to a piece of evidence. That led to us deciding, “OK, we have to do a direct action to get any type of recognition,” which resulted in getting arrested at Gavin Newsom’s house, and then spending 23 hours in jail.
In December, right before it was announced Becerra was going to be secretary of Health [and Human Services], someone from his office reached out to us and said that he wanted to sit down with us. But then, like two days after, they announced that he got promoted. It was kind of a slap in the face, like, did you want to tie loose ends?
M: It hurt, just knowing that there’s been nothing going on in Sean’s case. We deal with this weight every day, but people who are in positions of power aren’t doing anything. My brother would say, “The system was built to continue to oppress us.”
A: Politicians are gonna be politicians. And I think Michelle and I have to continue playing chess. This is a game of chess, not checkers. This is all really very new to us, so we’re just trying to figure out what ways we can hold people that have these positions of power accountable.
What are you hoping to see now that we have a new attorney general?
A: We’d hoped for Bonta to get this position. Now that he does—he’s not our savior, obviously. The work continues; we still have to organize. Really, it’s just a better chance of holding him accountable, him being from the Bay Area and recognizing that Vallejo is not too far, and that Vallejo needs a lot more help. These families have been crying out for help way before Sean was murdered.
M: Bonta has an amazing track record. He’s on the side of justice. I hope that he really is committed to supporting all impacted families, not just ours, but really just taking on Sean’s case fully and understanding that his murder is just one incident that’s happened here in California. Them destroying the evidence, right after the footage being released—this is what they’re used to. … Now that he has this position to actually really do something, I hope that he champions what he’s been trying to work on for the last few years.
I’m sure you two have talked to a ton of journalists this past year. What has that media attention been like for you?
M: When it first happened, I didn’t want to get on camera right away. I asked for a week and then our attorney said, “I don’t think you guys know how crucial this is, you guys need to get on camera.” And ever since then, we haven’t stopped. We’ve encountered folks who are a little insensitive, you know. And, obviously, we’re vulnerable. We didn’t know anything about how to answer. … Now we’re 10 months in, we’re more aware.
A lot of the time you see my sister and I, but you don’t see your parents. The reason you don’t see our parents is because they’re going through it. They work seven days a week; they only took time off to bury their son—their only son.
Is there anything you think the media has gotten wrong about your case?
A: Most of the time when people [who] are Black and brown, or just people in general, are murdered at the hands of police, [the media] are so quick to do their digging and find alarming pictures or records—and Sean did have a record. I mean, a lot of people have records, but Sean was never convicted of anything. So when it first occurred, and they tried to push their own narrative—
M: It didn’t work.
A: It didn’t work because Sean was someone of the community. He was a counselor-in-training for nonprofits. So, I think the media really tried to push their own narrative when it first occurred. But the truth will always overcome.