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How Protests Over Police Violence Are Changing A City Where Officers Kill With Near-Impunity

As protests against racism and police violence were sweeping the country, a Vallejo, California detective shot and killed Sean Monterrosa. His death has galvanized a community.

(Photo illustration by Elizabeth Brown. Photo from Getty Images.)

Late last year, Vallejo, California, hired its first Black police chief. 

The city of about 120,000 people, just northeast of San Francisco, has a troubling history of police killings—officers there have killed 19 people since 2010. The officers were almost never disciplined, and many went on to kill again. 

After the city hired Chief Shawny Williams away from the city of San Jose, optimism was high that systemic change was coming to one of the most embattled police departments in the nation.

But 10 months later, Williams continues to face one challenge after another as he attempts to repair a department embroiled in multiple controversies.

Vallejo is one of the most racially diverse cities in the country, with a population that has almost equal shares white, Latinx, Black and Asian. But most of the men shot and killed by the city’s police force have been Black or Latinx.

As protests against racism and police violence were sweeping the country following the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, a Vallejo police detective shot and killed 22-year-old Sean Monterrosa.

Monterrosa’s death on June 2 has galvanized the community, with local activists and elected officials calling for third-party oversight of the shooting investigation. It was the fifth fatal shooting by Vallejo police since 2017. In comparison, officers in San Francisco, a city with seven times the population, shot and killed six people over the same time period.

“I believe it’s the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back,” Vallejo Mayor Bob Sampayan, a retired police sergeant, said of the Monterrosa shooting. “This nation watched as George Floyd was brutalized and murdered by police. I think that had an impact here.”

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California also called for the FBI to investigate. “The police killing of Sean Monterrosa was a horrible act of brutality that continues to shake our Bay Area community,” Pelosi said in July. “Recent reports that key evidence in the investigation was destroyed are deeply disturbing and highlight the urgency and necessity of an outside, independent investigation.”

But neither the local district attorney nor the state’s attorney general have committed to investigating Monterrosa’s shooting, leading to a situation where no criminal investigation is underway. 

The OIR Group, which conducted an assessment of the police department, has been retained to conduct a third-party administrative investigation of the Monterrosa shooting. 

In the meantime, the department has destroyed evidence: a windshield that the detective fired through with a high-powered rifle as police responded to reports of looting outside a Walgreens.

Lt. Michael Nichelini and Lt. Fabio Rodriguez were placed on paid administrative leave in connection with the windshield’s destruction. Nichelini oversees the department’s patrol division and serves as the police union president.

On July 17, two days after the city announced the windshield was destroyed, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra agreed to step in and conduct an independent investigation to determine if any crime was committed. A month before, he approved an agreement between his office and the city to “collaborate on a comprehensive policing plan in an effort to modernize and reform VPD’s policies and practices and increase public trust.”

“The bottom line is that law enforcement across the country are rightly coming under the microscope and they have to get these things right if there’s going to be a chance to rebuild trust,” he said in a statement.

The outcry following fatal shootings in Vallejo has often been short-lived—until February 2019. 

On the night of Feb. 9, Willie McCoy was found slumped behind the wheel of his vehicle, parked in a Taco Bell restaurant drive-thru with a gun in his lap. Six Vallejo police officers—including Ryan McMahon, who shot and killed a man the year before—ended up firing 55 bullets at McCoy within 3.5 seconds after the man allegedly reached for the weapon, according to police.

In August, the city released several investigative documents in response to a public records request filed by The Appeal. 

An internal affairs review found McMahon “engaged in unsafe conduct” when he fired his weapon once with another officer standing within his “cone of fire.” Williams agreed with the review, which found that McMahon violated three department policies regarding safe handling of a weapon.

Williams began the process of trying to terminate McMahon last year for his actions in the McCoy shooting—but McMahon was still employed with the department as of July, records show.

Brittany K. Jackson, a Vallejo Police Department spokesperson, confirmed that McMahon is on administrative leave. 

Contained in the investigatory files was the McCoy autopsy report, which stated that the 20-year-old was shot 38 times, including in the heart and both lungs.

In late July, Solano County District Attorney Krishna Abrams announced she was appointing Michael Anthony Ramos as special prosecutor to investigate the McCoy shooting. As special prosecutor, Ramos will make up to $25,000 and must determine whether the six officers are criminally culpable for killing McCoy, according to his consulting contract. 

Serving as the San Bernardino County DA from 2003 to 2019, Ramos maintained an anti-crime stance as a staunch supporter of the death penalty, developed a human trafficking unit for his office, and served on the state’s Victim Compensation Board.

Abrams, who was first elected in 2014, had recused herself from investigating the shootings of Monterrosa and McCoy, citing a perceived conflict of interest.

In response to questions about her decision, the DA’s office referred The Appeal to a July 20 press release. 

“We listened to our community and their concerns for a transparent, conflict-free and independent review of the facts and circumstances of those incidents,” Abrams said in the statement. “We heard their voices and recognized how an independent review from someone not involved in Solano County law enforcement might work to ease concerns and restore trust in the system.”

This summer, Vallejo’s interim city attorney, Randy Risner, threatened to file a lawsuit against Abrams to compel her to investigate the McCoy and Monterrosa shootings.

“I respectfully demand that you reconsider your unlawful recusal and perform the duties you are mandated to perform. Your continued failure to do so is unjust and unfair to the officers involved, as well as to the families of Willie McCoy and Sean Monterrosa,” Risner wrote in a July 16 letter. “If you do not conduct a criminal review, a review will likely not be conducted. This result would be unjust and cast a dark cloud over the Solano County justice system.”

Phil Wilson, founder of the Vallejo Peace Project—a local group dedicated to starting a community dialogue about community and police violence—said city residents don’t trust Abrams or the police department.

“She has never taken any action against law enforcement while she’s been in office,” Wilson said. “People are not trusting her to do her job—good thing she wants to recuse herself.”

“There is a perception in the community that she and her office is biased in favor of law enforcement,” Melissa Nold, an attorney for Monterrosa’s family, said.

In February 2018, Abrams’s office cleared Vallejo officer Zachary Jacobsen in the shooting and killing of Angel Ramos, 21. Chief Deputy DA Sharon S. Henry said Jacobsen used reasonable and necessary force “to defend others from imminent death.”

Jacobsen and another officer responded on the night of Jan. 23, 2017, to the home Angel Ramos shared with his family. Police maintain that Ramos was hovering over another man with a large knife in hand, making stabbing motions on an outside deck. Jacobsen shot Ramos to protect the man, police say. 

But Angel Ramos’s family said he held the knife before going onto the deck, not while he was outside. They also maintain Ramos was standing when he was shot and killed.

The same month that Abrams’s office absolved Jacobsen, an officer fatally shot Ronell Foster, a 33-year-old Black man, seven times behind a building in downtown Vallejo.

Early this year, the DA’s office said McMahon, the officer who shot him, was justified in using deadly force.

McMahon told investigators that he saw Foster weaving in and out of traffic while riding a bicycle downtown. He attempted a traffic stop to “educate” Foster about not having a light on his bicycle. That’s when Foster fled, according to the officer, first on the bike, then ditching it and running on foot.

Foster ran behind a building and fell, allowing McMahon to catch up and push Foster down as the man tried to get up. When Foster allegedly grabbed McMahon’s flashlight, the officer shot and killed him.

Following the shooting, Foster’s family filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the city of Vallejo and McMahon.

According to news reports this month, the city and Foster’s family agreed to a $5.7 million agreement to settle the wrongful death lawsuit. 

Vallejo will only have to pay $500,000 of the settlement amount because the city’s insurance pool pays for the rest.

Civil rights attorney John Burris, one of two attorneys who represented Foster’s family in the lawsuit, said the family was not satisfied by the money.

“He’s getting away with it,” Burris said about McMahon. “He wasn’t prosecuted, that’s what the family wants more than money.”

Burris said Foster’s family will continue to join other families of men killed by Vallejo police in calling for justice. 

Abrams, whose term ends in 2022, was re-elected in June 2018 after running unopposed. While it’s unclear if Abrams will seek re-election, she will have a sizable advantage if she does: Her campaign reported a fund balance of $22,330 as of June 30, according to financial records submitted to the Solano County Registrar of Voters.

Most of that funding was received during the early months of 2018 from multiple sources, including local businesspersons, elected officials, law enforcement, and unions, records show.

The family members of those killed by Vallejo police were demanding that the officers be fired and charged with murder before the latest wave of protests against racism and police killings began. In February, they held a rally demanding reform and accountability from Vallejo police and Abrams’s office. Angel Ramos’s sister, Alicia Saddler, has become a police reform advocate, calling for drug testing of officers after their involvement in a shooting.

Over the last few months, their calls for police accountability have gained broader support, as the wave of Black Lives Matter protests that swept the country came to Vallejo. Around the same time, a rally was held in Vallejo honoring George Floyd. 

“Where were you guys at when it’s in our backyard?” Saddler asked during the rally on the steps of City Hall. She chastised the crowd for showing up for Floyd but not the men killed by Vallejo police. “You all gotta be here for us.”

Several community members who spoke to The Appeal agreed that Floyd’s death and the national push for police reform is amplifying the pressure to hold local police accountable. They said Williams has not done enough to address the systemic issues within his department. 

For longtime Vallejo resident and community advocate Mina Diaz, the Monterrosa shooting shows that there is a lack of transparency and timely communication from the police department and city officials. 

“People are hurting, they are frustrated, they want justice,” said Diaz, who founded Diaz & Loera Centro Latino, a nonprofit organization. “The people need to trust our police.”

Shortly after Williams took office, he emphasized his commitment to transparency in videos released through the city. “If we have trust then we have communication,” he said in one video. “If we have communication, we have strong community partnerships. We need strong community partnerships to have a safe community.” 

But he has been criticized for waiting over 38 hours to publicly confirm Monterrosa had been fatally shot. During a 1 p.m. press conference on the same day Monterrosa was killed, neither Williams nor City Manager Greg Nyhoff mentioned his death.

City officials during that same press conference only spoke about the widespread vandalism that had taken place in the city, including someone setting a fire inside City Hall. The night before, city officials had issued a rare curfew from 8 p.m. to 5 a.m.

Days after the shooting, Vallejo’s representatives in Congress and the California Legislature demanded that a third party investigate the shooting—a step they hadn’t taken after any other fatal police shootings in the city.

In response to a request for comment from Williams about his first year on the job in Vallejo, Jackson said the police department would “be issuing several updates to the public in the coming weeks.”

Jimmie Jackson, president of the Vallejo branch of the NAACP, said the “jury is still out” about Williams’s tenure so far as Vallejo’s top cop. He emphasized that some of the issues Williams is facing are systemic.

“He’s working on change, but the problem is there is no money and not enough officers,” Jackson said. 

After McCoy’s death, the city hired the OIR Group to analyze the culture, operations, and internal review of the Vallejo Police Department. It published its findings in a 70-page assessment completed in May.

“Much of the department seems to have an aggrieved perspective toward local politicians, the media, and its critics in the activist and legal communities,” the report stated. “It becomes easy in such circumstances to perceive even the most fair-minded critiques from outsiders as attacks, and to let the less fair-minded ones become a breeding ground for defensiveness and resentment.”

In July, Abrams announced her office would be appointing a special prosecutor to investigate the McCoy shooting.

Williams was hit with another controversy as the independent newsroom Open Vallejo reported in July that officers would bend the tips of their star-shaped badges following their involvement in a fatal shooting.

Open Vallejo reported that out of the 51 current and former city police officers involved in fatal shootings since 2000, at least 14 had bent badges.

In response, Williams announced he was launching an independent, third-party investigation into the allegations after he confirmed with “two different sources within the Vallejo Police Department that badge bending has occurred,” according to a department press release.

In July, Williams also asked the City Council to approve creation of an assistant police chief position, and that person would manage “the day-to-day internal activities” of the department. 

The assistant chief is also expected to help implement the 45 recommendations in the OIR Group report, including relocating police to new headquarters, hiring community service officers “to provide timely responses to property crimes,” making the lobby more accessible to the community, ensuring effective internal audits, and “find ways to provide promotional opportunities and mentoring for female officers and officers of color.”

Joseph Allio, who was interim chief for five months before Williams was hired in 2019, was hired as the interim assistant chief.

But many Vallejo residents say that the department needs federal oversight for real change to be achieved. Brien Farrell, a former attorney who worked with the city of Santa Rosa, is among them. He called the OIR report a “high-level shallow audit,” and that a deeper audit by the Department of Justice is needed.

“For real change, we need a community dialogue, a serious debate about how best to allocate resources for our youth, and how to deal with low-level offenses which frees up our officers,” Farrell added. 

The firm owned by Nold, one the attorneys for Sean Monterrosa’s family, filed a lawsuit over McCoy’s death. It asked a federal judge to appoint an independent monitor to oversee the police department. The lawsuit is expected to go to trial in January 2022, according to court records.

The city, which is defending itself in nearly two dozen federal excessive force and/or wrongful death lawsuits, will have to defend itself in another lawsuit because Monterrosa’s family filed a wrongful death lawsuit in early August, alleging that police officer Jarrett Tonn was “trigger happy” when he shot and killed the 22-year-old San Francisco man outside a Vallejo Walgreens.

Although several news outlets identified Tonn as the officer who shot Monterrosa, the city has yet to name him officially. In part, because the Vallejo police union filed a temporary restraining order blocking the release of Tonn’s name. 

“The City Attorney will oppose the application and seek to defend the City’s right to release the name of the officer(s) at a time and through a method of its choosing,” Vallejo spokeswoman Brittany Jackson told the Times-Herald in June. “The City will not release the name(s) pending resolution of this legal matter.”

The union has publicly stated that Tonn and his family received death threats after the June 2 shooting.

As Vallejo grapples with a shrinking budget due to COVID-19, and the decision to allocate 22 percent of its total budget to police services, reforming the police department is expected to be the main topic of discussion among both voters and candidates during the upcoming City Council and mayoral elections this fall.

“Now the light is shined, this cannot continue,” Nold said about the Monterrosa shooting and its effect on the Vallejo community. “Hopefully this will result in some change because sometimes you need to scorch the earth to rebuild things.”