A California City Is Experiencing An Epidemic of Police Shootings—And Many Of The Victims May Have Been Unarmed
The Appeal examined 17 fatal shootings by the Vallejo police over the last decade and found at least six cases where the person shot may have been unarmed.
On Feb. 9, about 50 people gathered on the front steps of California’s Capitol building in Sacramento to commemorate the second anniversary of the killing of Willie McCoy by the Vallejo police. McCoy, 20, was shot 38 times as he slept in his vehicle in a Taco Bell drive-thru.
“It’s happened multiple times: unarmed citizens losing their life with a false narrative behind it. This one had a knife. This one had a gun. False narratives,” McCoy’s brother Kori McCoy said at the February rally while wearing a photo of body camera video of his brother in the moments before officers killed him. “We are not the lunatic fringe. We are not conspiracy theorists. These things actually have happened and take place.”
Since Willie McCoy’s 2019 killing, a special prosecutor and a consultant hired by the city of Vallejo determined that the officers’ actions were justified because McCoy had a gun in his lap. Crime scene photos show a weapon in the vehicle after officers pulled McCoy’s lifeless body out.
“If he reaches for it,” Officer Mark Thompson said “you know what to do,” according to the body camera footage of the killing.
The police’s initial statement on the killing described McCoy “suddenly” beginning to move before he “quickly reached for the handgun on his lap.” But the footage shows McCoy simply scratching his shoulder.
An analysis by The Appeal determined that there have been about half a dozen fatal shootings in Vallejo in the last decade where the officer’s justification of the events was contradicted by witnesses or their own body cameras. But despite such inconsistencies and the fact that Vallejo officers have killed 19 people since 2010, the department has fired just one officer in connection with a fatal shooting during that time. The Solano County district attorney’s office has also cleared officers of wrongdoing in every police homicide case in recent history.
As accountability for police killings in Vallejo remains elusive, new and disturbing allegations about misconduct at the department have surfaced. In July 2020, local nonprofit newsroom Open Vallejo reported that some officers celebrated fatal shootings with barbecues and bending the tips of their badges. Former Vallejo captain John Whitney says he was fired for reporting the practice to the mayor and police chief, among other officials.
“The district attorneys are essentially turning a blind eye to what is going on to the citizens they’re supposed to be representing,” civil rights attorney Adante Pointer told The Appeal. Pointer represented several families of people killed by Vallejo officers. “Instead, I think there’s an inherent conflict of interest and, for most district attorneys, there’s a crisis of a lack of conviction in the sense of them wanting to hold people who offend the community’s sense of consciousness accountable.”
The Appeal examined 17 fatal shootings by the Vallejo police over the last decade and found at least six cases where the person shot was unarmed or the evidence against the deceased relied solely on the shooting officers’ testimonies.
Anton Barrett Sr.
It was just after midnight on May 28, 2012, and a group of Vallejo officers that included Sean Kenney and Dustin Joseph pursued Anton Barrett Sr. and his son. Officers claimed that the white 1999 Lexus sedan that the Barretts were in did not have its headlights on. Barrett Sr. stopped the car at a dark cul-de-sac on the city’s west side, then got out and fled on foot. Anton Barrett Jr., hid in nearby bushes. A K-9 officer, Mark Thompson, sicced his dog on Barrett Jr.
Kenney said he heard “a pop or a boom sound” in the back of a residence in the cul-de-sac that he believed was a gunshot, according to an affidavit filed by Fabio Rodriguez, who is now a lieutenant. Kenney confronted Barrett Sr. between the apartments. Kenney said Barrett Sr. reached into his waistband area and began removing “a black metallic object” that Kenney later described as “the scariest thing he had ever seen.” According to a report from the Solano County DA, Kenney was “in fear for his life” and shot Barrett Sr. five times in the chest, abdomen, and back.
The “black metallic object” was not a weapon—but a black metallic wallet. Although the department’s statement on the incident released later that morning didn’t mention the metal wallet, three days later a police evidence clerk took photos of Rodriguez holding the wallet alongside a Glock pistol to corroborate Kenney’s claim that Barrett held the object like a firearm.
“I noted that the wallet is similar in shape and size to the frame of the Glock, they are the same in color, and have a square and round appearance at times,” Rodriguez wrote in his report.
In clearing Kenney in the shooting, then-Solano County DA Donald du Bain wrote that Barrett’s death wasn’t due to “any unlawful conduct by the officers,” but instead “his demise was the result of his own conduct and poor decisions.”
“They said that his wallet looked like a gun,” civil rights attorney Melissa Nold said at the Sacramento rally in February. “I’ve never seen a wallet that looked like a gun, but that officer [Sean Kenney] gunned him down, no charges.”
In the early morning hours of Oct. 21, 2012, residents on Alameda Street were awakened by loud shouting and banging noises. At 1:28 a.m., Vallejo officers were dispatched to a residence in the 2500 block of Alameda Street on a report that two men were arguing, trying to burn their house down, and had broken car windows in front of their home. Officers—including Kenney, who was involved in the Barrett Sr. shooting, and off-duty Sausalito police officer Ryan McMahon—arrived at the scene at 1:33 a.m. and found Jason Jessie running naked into his home. When officers confronted Jessie inside, they noticed smoke. Then, they said, Jessie’s partner Jeremiah Moore “appeared from the back of the interior of the house with a rifle” and “placed the barrel of the rifle directly against an officer’s stomach.”
The DA’s report says McMahon yelled “he’s got a gun” or something similar.
Kenney fired his .40-caliber pistol, hitting 29-year-old Moore. Kenney told investigators that Moore continued to reach for the rifle, so he fired two more times.
Vallejo police command staff commended Kenney for not pausing while shooting to re-evaluate the incident “as taught in the past,” but rather firing continuously “until the threat stopped.” As The Appeal reported in 2019, Vallejo police are taught to use the “zipper drill,” a method where an officer fires numerous rounds into an adversary, starting low in the body and “zipping” the barrel of the gun up toward the head while continuously shooting.
But in April 2014, a neighbor of Moore’s told KQED that he was waving his arms uncontrollably and didn’t have a rifle in his hands when he was shot. That August, the Solano County DA’s office found that Moore’s killing was “clearly justified.”
A 2014 lawsuit filed in federal court on behalf of Moore’s family says he was on the autism spectrum, which caused him to move his limbs when he was nervous. The lawsuit also states that Vallejo police falsely reported Moore was threatening officers with a gun. The city settled the lawsuit for $250,000 in 2016.
Vallejo police have paid out more than $13 million because of police misconduct lawsuits over the last decade and anticipate another $50 million for outstanding claims.
Around 4:30 a.m. on Sept. 2, 2012, Mario Romero and his brother-in-law, Joseph Johnson, sat in Romero’s 1992 Ford Thunderbird in North Vallejo when officers Kenney and Joseph said they pulled up to the scene because of a burglary report. The officers said that as they approached the vehicle they saw Romero reach for something in his waistband and that he appeared to handle a gun as he stepped out of the car. Then, as Romero and Johnson’s families watched, the officers shot the men.
Romero, 23, was shot 30 times and died at a local hospital. Johnson was shot once through the hip and survived.
“I couldn’t think of any other … physiological reason why he would reach towards his waistband,” Kenney said in an interview with detectives Todd Tribble and Mat Mustard, who was then the head of Vallejo’s police union. Johnson later told police he didn’t recall Romero getting out of the car or seeing a gun, according to the DA’s report.
The department’s statement on the incident said Kenney and Joseph first fired into the car at Romero, unaware if they hit him. They said Romero “put both his hands down toward his body and entered the interior of the vehicle reaching toward the center console.” Kenney and Joseph reloaded and fired again, only stopping after Romero slumped back into the driver’s seat. Several of Romero’s family members maintained they witnessed an officer fire while standing on the hood of Romero’s car. But investigators say Kenney did not stand on the hood of the vehicle while shooting Romero. Officials acknowledged that Kenney did stand on the hood, but only after the shooting was over.
Joseph said he didn’t find a gun when he searched the driver’s side of the vehicle. But Kenney said he later found a replica Beretta PX4 pellet gun wedged between the driver’s seat and center console with the barrel pointed at the floorboard and the magazine at the front of the car.
“I grabbed the handgun, start to clear it and then uh, it, kind of a dumb move on [my] part, I realize I don’t have [a] glove on and there’s a bunch of blood and then, everything else all over the place. So I put the gun back in the position that I found it,” Kenney told detectives.
Romero’s family disputes the police narrative of the incident, particularly their characterization of him as a drug-dealing gang member. Cyndi Mitchell, one of Romero’s sisters, said her brother was not engaged in a crime when police killed him.
“They attempted to create a narrative to paint him as a bad person when he was just sitting in front of his house, minding his own business,” Mitchell said. “This police-issued training weapon got planted inside Mario’s car with no fingerprints on it, except for Sean Kenney’s, in my brother’s blood. They created a narrative to match what was going on.”
Mitchell also said that because the seat belt in Romero’s car was broken “when he was murdered, his biggest fear was getting a seat belt ticket.” Indeed, Mitchell’s family said that when Romero’s body was removed from the vehicle after he was shot, he had to be cut out of his seat belt, which was tied in a knot.
In 2013, DA du Bain cleared Kenney and Joseph in Romero’s killing, writing they “had no viable choice but to defend themselves by eliminating what appeared to them to be a very real threat.” Du Bain also dismissed allegations that the replica gun was planted, saying: “It would be unreasonable to believe that anyone, in an attempt [to] fabricate evidence to justify a shooting, would choose to plant a replica firearm such as a pellet gun rather than a real firearm.”
In 2015, the city settled a lawsuit brought by Romero’s mother and Johnson for $2 million.
Kenney—who shot five people during his more than 10-year career in Vallejo—has the highest number of shootings in the Vallejo Police’s Department. He was promoted to detective in 2013 and retired in 2019. He later founded Line Driven Strategies, LLC, which trains officers in California on de-escalation techniques, including “how to legitimize the profession to the naysayers,” according to emails obtained by The Appeal.
Joseph works for Line Driven Strategies and the Fairfield Police Department. In November, nine people who were protesting his hiring in Fairfield were arrested at a City Council meeting.
This is a man who continuously is imagining guns. And they still didn’t fire him. It’s a systemic problem, over and over.Melissa Nold, civil rights attorney
Just after midnight on Jan. 23, 2017, Vallejo police responded to reports of people fighting at a house on the corner of Sacramento and Nebraska streets. Minutes after he arrived on the scene, Officer Zachary Jacobsen shot Angel Ramos four times on a balcony from “15 to 20 meters,” or 50 to 65 feet away. Jacobsen said there was sufficient light to see that Ramos had a knife and was making stabbing motions toward a person on the ground.
Later that day, Vallejo police put out a statement describing the incident as a “21 year old male was holding a knife and presented himself as an immediate and lethal threat to the victim down on his back.”
“Actually what happened is that he was in a fist-fight with an equally sized adult,” Nold, the civil rights attorney, said at the Sacramento rally, “and he wasn’t armed and they lied to vilify him in the public eye so nobody would give a damn that he was murdered in his home in front of his family.”
Several witnesses told officers that Ramos didn’t have a knife when he was shot, but a knife with Ramos’s DNA was found in the kitchen sink, according to police. Officer Jeremy Callinan said he didn’t see Ramos with a knife, but if Jacobsen hadn’t shot him, “he would have used deadly force to protect the victim’s life.”
In February 2018, Solano County DA Abrams determined that Jacobsen “acted lawfully” “to defend others from imminent death or great bodily injury.”
According to a fact sheet on the Vallejo police’s newly launched Accountability & Transparency page on the department website, Ramos was armed with a knife.
Ryan McMahon—the off-duty Sausalito police officer riding with Sean Kenney when he killed Jeremiah Moore—was hired by the Vallejo Police Department in 2017.
On Feb. 13, 2018, McMahon saw 33-year-old Ronell Foster riding his bike at night without a light. In about a minute, McMahon chased Foster, shot him with a Taser twice, struck him repeatedly with his flashlight, and shot him in the back and the back of the head. McMahon activated his body camera after killing Foster. Body camera footage shows Foster grabbing McMahon’s flashlight before turning away from him as McMahon began shooting.
In an initial statement, Vallejo police said there was “a violent physical struggle” before McMahon “discharged his duty firearm in self-defense.” A statement posted the next day said Foster “managed to forcibly take away a metal flashlight from the officer and armed himself with it, presenting it in a threatening manner.”
Vallejo police said the shooting was justified because Foster was armed with McMahon’s flashlight; the department reiterated that justification in the “Information on Officer-Involved Shootings 2015-2020” fact sheet on its accountability and transparency page.
Pointer, the attorney representing Foster’s family, told The Appeal that Vallejo police release information “under the guise of transparency, continuing to double down on the lies that Ronell Foster deserved to be killed because he was armed with a flashlight.”
“That is a completely false fabrication and frankly a very weak and unsupported excuse to justify what I believe to be the murder of an unarmed man who was simply trying to defend himself,” Pointer said. “The idea and statement to say he was armed is simply not true.”
In a February 2020 deposition in a civil case brought by Foster’s family, McMahon said that “I assessed in my head, ‘Hey, this guy took my light, he’s going to hit me with my light’ and the next thing I knew I was shooting.” McMahon also said that he was not contacted by investigators with the Solano County DA—who cleared him in the incident—nor interviewed by Vallejo police’s command staff.
In September, McMahon was fired, not for killing Foster, but for allegedly endangering another officer while firing at Willie McCoy in 2019.
The city of Vallejo also settled the Foster case in September for $5.7 million. It is one of the largest payouts for a police killing in the history of the Bay Area. Pointer told The Appeal that the huge settlement is indicative of the city’s concerns that a jury would have given the family an even larger amount had the case proceeded to trial. “It’s more probably damage control than it is accepting the seriousness of the travesty that took place here,” he said.
Last year, in the early morning hours of June 2, Vallejo police responded to calls of vandalism and looting at a Walgreens on Redwood Boulevard. When officers arrived, cars filled with people scattered, and one hit a police vehicle. Unrest was spreading across the U.S. after the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis just days before, and police were on edge.
“It looks like they’re armed,” Captain Lee Horton broadcast to other officers.
Seconds later, Detective Jarrett Tonn fired his tactical rifle five times from the backseat of a moving unmarked police truck. One of his shots hit 22-year-old Sean Monterrosa of San Francisco in the neck, killing him. “Hey, he pointed a gun at us!” Tonn yelled to his fellow officers, according to body camera footage.
Monterrosa was not holding a gun, but a hammer that he’d used to try to pry open a pharmacy locker inside the store. It was Tonn’s fourth on-duty shooting in five years.
“Each one of those people he shot at previously he claimed was armed,” Nold said. “None of them were armed. This is a man who continuously is imagining guns. And they still didn’t fire him. It’s a systemic problem, over and over.”
Vallejo Police Chief Shawny Williams waited 38 and a half hours to announce that the shooting was fatal. He first said Monterrosa was kneeling with his hands held above his waist when he was shot. Williams later changed his description of the incident after the Vallejo Police Officers Association (VPOA) released its own version of events, which included allegations that Monterrosa “engaged” officers and was “crouched into a tactical shooting position.”
Williams’s description later mirrored the VPOA’s story, but he told the San Francisco Chronicle he was merely clarifying the “narrative.”
Two Vallejo lieutenants—Fabio Rodriguez and Michael Nichelini, the president of the VPOA—were put on leave related to the alleged destruction of evidence in Monterrosa’s killing. In July, the California Department of Justice announced that it was investigating. “The allegations concerning destruction of evidence under the watch of the Vallejo Police Department are significant,” said Attorney General Xavier Becerra, who was just confirmed by the U.S. Senate to head the Department of Health and Human Services.
DA Abrams has recused her office from two of the most recent fatal police shootings—McCoy and Monterrosa—citing the public’s distrust in her.
The public information officer for the Vallejo Police Department did not respond to multiple requests for comment from The Appeal.
In November, the department joined the Solano County Major Crimes Task Force, which will be involved in a new protocol for who investigates police shootings.
Pointer says too often prosecutors allow police officers to justify killing people who are holding everyday objects, from a phone to a bag of Skittles.
“To put it bluntly, these DAs do not have the will or the moral conviction to do right and hold officers accountable and that just sends the worst message possible, which essentially feeds into what we’re seeing: An officer, whether a person is armed or not, gets to say, ‘I feared for my life,’” he said. “And that, in and of itself, is justification for a person to lose their life. And that’s just completely unacceptable. This is just going to continue to happen until they’re voted out of office or just kicked out of office.”
Correction: an earlier version of this article stated that former Vallejo captain John Whitney alleged in a recent whistleblower lawsuit that he was fired for reporting the practice of officers bending their badges to celebrate fatal shootings to District Attorney Krishna Abrams and others. Whitney says he fired for reporting the practice to the mayor and police chief, among other officials. This article has also been updated to clarify that officer Sean Kenney did not stand on the hood of Mario Romero’s vehicle while shooting him. Officer Kenney did stand on the hood, but only after the shooting was over.