Tag Archives: Police violence

Finally! Solano County Supervisors schedule discussion on Sheriff oversight board

Solano supervisors to discuss possible new oversight of sheriff’s office

JohnGlidden.com, by Scott Morris, Aug. 30, 2021
Solano County Sheriff Tom Ferrara

VALLEJO – The Solano County Board of Supervisors will have a discussion in September or October about possibly instituting a new oversight board of the Solano County Sheriff’s Office.

Such a board would be authorized under new state legislation passed last year that allows the supervisors to create an oversight board with subpoena power. Members of Benicia Black Lives Matter pushed for oversight following revelations that members of the sheriff’s office posted symbols associated with the Three Percenter anti-government group on social media.

Only Supervisor Monica Brown of Benicia supported even discussing an oversight board in previous meetings, but to add an item to the agenda requires two supervisors’ support. On Tuesday, Brown made a motion to agendize the discussion again and Supervisor Erin Hannigan supported it. Brown said there could be a meeting on the issue on Sept. 28 or Oct. 5.

Hannigan did not respond to questions about why she changed her mind about the discussion. But a new federal civil rights lawsuit filed in August alleged that sheriff’s deputies beat a Black woman unconscious for no reason during an encounter over mismatched license plates and then lied about it in reports. The sheriff’s office contends that the woman struck a deputy in the face, but body camera video doesn’t corroborate that statement.

“We’re happy, but why did it take a Black woman getting beaten unconscious for the board to take our request seriously enough to put the item on the agenda?” said Benicia Black Lives Matter co-founder Nimat Grantham. “Erin was the first person who I would expect to second that motion and she never did until now.”

Following revelations in February that members of the sheriff’s office had posted Three Percenter symbols on social media, members of Benicia Black Lives Matter wrote letters to the sheriff demanding an investigation and requested that the county’s civil grand jury take up the issue. Sheriff Tom Ferrara responded by saying that the FBI had cleared his deputies of any extremist affiliations, which the FBI disputed.

Then in April, members of Benicia Black Lives Matter called in to a Board of Supervisors meeting asking for the supervisors to institute new oversight of the sheriff’s office under AB 1185. But when Brown moved to add the discussion to the agenda in a future meeting, none of the other supervisors would support it.


Benicia Black Lives Matter continued to call in to meetings pushing for new oversight. During a meeting on May 4, the supervisors cut off Benicia Black Lives Matter co-founder Brandon Greene. Later, Solano County Republicans organized in opposition to the push for oversight, asking people to call in but not identify themselves as Republicans.

The allegations that sheriff’s deputies beat a Black woman unconscious and then lied about it in reports have renewed calls for oversight of the sheriff’s office. On Tuesday, NAACP Tri-City branch president Johnicon George called in to the Board of Supervisors meeting and said he was “disturbed” by video of the incident and “disappointed” that the supervisors have refused to have any discussion about oversight.

“I’m not confident that this body respects and cares about the African American community in Solano County,” he said, pointing out that the supervisors, none of whom are Black, also declined to institute diversity training for themselves.

Any oversight discussion would be unlikely to succeed as the three men on the board, one of whom is a former sheriff’s lieutenant, each have already endorsed Ferrara’s reelection as sheriff.

Grantham said that would not deter her or Benicia Black Lives Matter from continuing to push for oversight. “It’s probably going to be a fight, it’s going to take a lot of effort to get an oversight board or even a citizens’ advisory board,” she said. “But it’s just like when they were trying to desegregate the schools in the south and Gov. George Wallace was saying ‘over my dead body’ – it seemed impossible but it took a lot of effort.”


Scott Morris is an independent journalist in Oakland covering policing, protest and civil rights. If you appreciate his work please consider making a contribution.

Solano Sheriff Deputies Knocked A Woman Unconscious And Then Lied About It, A Federal Lawsuit Says

[Editor: Here’s ANOTHER good reason for a Solano County Sheriff Oversight Board.  County Supervisors, please take action!  Oh, and… let’s elect a new Sheriff in 2022.  – R.S.]

‘I think she’s out,’ Solano Sheriff deputy says after violent arrest

Associated Press, by Christopher Weber, August 18, 2021
Joe Powell is comforted by his daughter, Nakia Porter, right, during a news conference to announce the filing of a federal lawsuit brought against two Solano County Sheriff’s deputies, Wednesday, Aug. 18, 2021, in Sacramento, Calif. The lawsuit stems from an incident where the pair, and Porter’s three daughters, had pulled over on the side of the road in Dixon on Aug. 6, 2020, so Powell could take over the driving from his daughter. As they were stopped the two deputies’ squad car pulled up behind and confronted Porter and her father and eventually knocked Porter unconscious and arrested her, then later lied about the incident. The suit accuses the deputies of violating state federal civil rights statutes by engaging in “unlawful seizure, assault and excessive force.” (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

A woman who pulled off a road to change drivers during a trip with her father and three young children was knocked unconscious and arrested by two Northern California sheriff’s deputies, who then lied about the encounter to responding paramedics and on official reports, according to a federal lawsuit filed Wednesday.

Body cameras worn by the deputies with the Solano County Sheriff’s Office recorded them pulling guns on Nakia Porter before slamming her to the pavement while handcuffing her along a rural road in the town of Dixon on the night of Aug. 6, 2020. Porter’s father, Joe Powell, was also placed in handcuffs and briefly detained.

Porter was jailed overnight on suspicion of resisting arrest, but never charged. She said the ordeal was confusing and dehumanizing.

“I was doing my best to do everything right, giving no reason to be treated like this,” said Porter, 33, who is Black.

The lawsuit brought by attorney Yasin Almadani accuses the deputies of violating state and federal civil rights statutes by engaging in “unlawful seizure, assault and excessive force.”

“Thankfully, the video evidence contradicted the fabricated facts,” Almadani said. “So what occurred here, we believe, was a racially motivated beating and terrorizing of a Black family.”

Solano County sheriff’s officials couldn’t immediately comment because the department hadn’t received a copy of the complaint by Wednesday afternoon, Sgt. Christine Castillo said in an email.

The lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Sacramento asks a judge to order a jury trial for the arresting deputies, Dalton McCampbell and Lisa McDowell, and seeks unspecified damages.

The events unfolded as Porter and her 61-year-old father were making the 100-mile (160-kilometer) drive home to Orangevale, northeast of Sacramento, after a family trip to Oakland. Her two daughters, ages 3 and 6, and her 4-year-old niece were in the back seat. Porter is a software engineer, and her father, who’s retired, worked in computer networking.

Porter was behind the wheel when they stopped along an empty road in Dixon. The deputies’ squad car pulled up behind them with lights flashing. Porter already was out of the car and explained that they were just switching drivers and would be on their way, according to the court filing.

The deputies said they noticed the car had mismatched license plates — a California plate on the back of the car, and one from Maryland on the front.

“However, the deputies had called in the rear license plate to their dispatch and knew that it matched the description of the car and that there was no report of the car being stolen,” the filing states.

McCampbell, who had his gun drawn, ordered Porter back to the driver’s side, and he and his partner moved to detain her, according to edited bodycam footage acquired by Almadani and provided to The Associated Press. Almadani acquired more than 18 minutes of raw footage through a California Public Records Act request, and edited it down to just under 10 minutes.

“For those that are listening, I am not resisting,” Porter said into the deputies’ cameras. “You are not reading me my rights.”

The deputies pushed Porter against the squad car and then to the pavement while trying to handcuff her.

“Put your hands behind your back. Get on your stomach,” McCampbell shouted.

The footage gets very shaky, and it’s hard to see whether Porter is resisting. Porter and the court filing allege the deputies punched her in the head and the stomach, kneeled on her back and pulled her hair. She said she passed out seconds after the deputies closed the handcuffs.

“I think she’s out,” McCambell said on the video.

Porter, who is 5-foot-2 (1.6 meters) and 125 pounds (57 kilograms), said she was dragged unconscious to the back of the squad car, where she came to about five minutes later.

When paramedics arrived, McCampbell is heard saying Porter fought them, was knocked out for about 20 seconds and was able to walk herself to the squad car. McDowell estimates to the paramedics that Porter was unconscious for about five seconds.

Porter requested she be transported to a hospital, according to the lawsuit.

“Deputies McCampbell and McDowell denied the request, continuing to lie to the paramedics by minimizing the assault and the injuries they had inflicted on Ms. Porter,” the court filing said.

The lawsuit accuses the deputies of lying on their arrest reports about Porter fighting them and the length of time she was unconscious. Contact information for McCampbell and McDowell could not be found.

The suit also names a superior officer who signed off on the reports.

Cedric Alexander, a police use-of-force expert, was troubled by the video. He wondered why the deputies seemed to rush to detain Porter and Powell without first taking actions to de-escalate the situation, especially with three young kids in the car.

“What’s concerning here is the use of force,” said Alexander, a former president of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives. “There needs to be a full investigation conducted outside of the sheriff’s department, preferably by a district attorney’s office.”

Bill would have California join 46 other states in allowing decertification of bad cops

California bill aims to decertify police for serious misconduct

Currently the state does not have the power to permanently remove law enforcement officers from their jobs

Vallejo Times-Herald, by Robert Lewis, CalMatters, July 26, 2021
Police create a blockade as protesters attempt to walk onto the eastbound span of the Bay Bridge in San Francisco on Saturday, May 30, 2020. Red states such as Florida and Georgia lead the way in decertifying officers with past problems, while there is no decertification in two of the bluest and biggest in the country – California and New Jersey. (Jose Carlos Fajardo — Bay Area News Group file)

On a Wednesday afternoon in April 2018, Gardena police officers got a “triple beeper” over their radios — three high-pitched squawks signaling an emergency. As many as 20 shots reportedly had been fired near a local park.

“That kind of gets you a little adrenaline squirt going,” Gardena Police Officer Michael Robbins would later tell investigators.

In minutes, a 25-year-old Black man, Kenneth Ross Jr., was dead — shot twice and killed by Officer Robbins as he ran past Rowley Park. Police said a gun was found in the dead man’s shorts pocket, and Robbins would later be cleared by local authorities of any wrongdoing.

But the case was far from over.

What happened on April 11, 2018 — which led to immediate cries for police accountability and demonstrations — is now a centerpiece of a bill that is arguably California’s biggest criminal justice proposal this legislative session.

TEXT AND HISTORY OF THE BILL: SB-2 Peace officers: certification: civil rights. (2021-2022), leginfo.legislature.ca.gov

The bill (The Kenneth Ross Jr. Police Decertification Act of 2021) would allow California to decertify police officers for misconduct — effectively stripping them of a license to work in law enforcement and kicking them out of the profession. California is one of only four states in the country without such power. As a result, a number of high-profile cases have been reported over the years where an officer involved in a questionable shooting was allowed to remain on the streets, only to kill again. Officers also have been fired for wrongdoing in one department, then quietly moved on to another agency.

“California is able to revoke the certification or license of bad doctors, bad lawyers, even bad barbers and cosmetologists — you can even recall an elected official — but is unable to decertify police officers who have broken the law and violated public trust,” state Sen. Steven Bradford said at a committee hearing earlier this year. Bradford, a Gardena Democrat who chairs the public safety committee and lives near where the shooting took place, introduced the bill along with Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins.

In the Gardena shooting, local law enforcement — as it typically does in such cases — investigated the shooting. The district attorney’s office cleared Robbins of wrongdoing because it said the officer believed the man running away from him was armed and might reasonably have feared for his life

But criminal justice reform advocates say for too long police accountability has been solely in the hands of local agencies — police policing themselves. They question if the man Robbins shot in the back was truly a threat running away and point out it was the officer’s fourth shooting, suggesting he was too quick to use deadly force.

Bradford’s bill is the latest effort to break through the wall of legal protections built up over the years that critics say shield California law enforcement officers from accountability. CalMatters was only able to obtain internal police reports and videos regarding the Gardena shooting because a 2018 law for the first time opened certain law enforcement records, including files pertaining to use of deadly force and some misconduct. Another law that went into effect this year requires the state attorney general’s office to handle investigations regarding police killings of unarmed civilians.

“This nation has cried out — especially in Black and brown communities — for change,” Bradford told CalMatters, ticking off a list of high-profile police killings and use of force incidents from Stephon Clark in Sacramento to Oscar Grant in Oakland to Rodney King in Los Angeles. “It’s definitely overdue.”

But there’s still work to be done, he added.

“It’s one thing to pass legislation. It’s another to change the mindset and internal training and operations of law enforcement,” Bradford said.

People attend a rally for Mario Gonzalez outside the Alameda police headquarters in Alameda, Calif., on Monday, May, 3 2021. Gonzalez died in custody while being restrained by Alameda police on April 19. (Jane Tyska — Bay Area News Group file)

And his bill is far from certain, as police associations and chiefs from around the state have signaled their opposition.

“No one wants to see bad officers removed from law enforcement more than good officers do,” said Brian Marvel, president of the Peace Officers Research Association of California, in a statement to CalMatters.

“When an officer acts in a way that is grossly inconsistent with the missions and goals of our profession, it tarnishes the badge and the great work being done day in and day out by officers keeping our families and communities safe.”

But he added that the bill as written creates a “biased and unclear process for revoking an officer’s license.

The bill would create a new division within the state’s Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training to investigate or review possible misconduct. A nine-member advisory board would consider the evidence and recommend whether to strip an officer of certification. The majority of that board would be civilians without policing experience, including four members who would be experts on “police accountability” and two who either personally suffered from an officer’s use of force or lost a loved one to such an incident. The commission would have final say on decertification,  but language in the bill suggests they’d be expected to adopt the advisory board’s recommendations when reasonably supported by evidence.

As for what constitutes wrongdoing that could cost an officer their career, it’s unclear. The bill includes categories such as sexual assault and dishonesty but would leave it to the commission to develop a full definition of “serious misconduct” that also includes broader areas such as “abuse of power” and “physical abuse.”

“We all want to see a fair and transparent decertification system put in place that permanently removes officers for serious misconduct, but even with recent amendments (the bill) fails to create a balanced and even process,” said Abdul Pridgen, president of the California Police Chiefs Association, in an email to CalMatters. “However, we remain committed to continuing our work with the Governor’s office, legislative leaders, and Senator Bradford to address our remaining concerns and establish a decertification process we can all have faith in.”

Among the sticking points for the association is the makeup of the advisory board, the degree to which that board’s recommendations are binding and what will happen if a local department exonerates an officer but the state commission finds wrongdoing.

decertification bill failed last session. The current bill made it out of the Senate but not without changes. The initial version had made it easier for civilians to sue officers for misconduct, but that language is largely gone.

More recent amendments reduce the role of the advisory board. Bradford’s spokesperson said those changes were made after working with the governor’s office and key lawmakers. The original bill gave the advisory board the power to direct the commission to investigate certain officers. The new version, however, simply says the board can recommend investigations. It also drops a licensing fee on officers.

Police unions have been donating to some Democrat lawmakers who could play a role in forcing further changes — news that prompted a sharp tweet from Sen. Bradford accusing opponents of trying to “kill solid policy.”

“If you can’t win on the merit of your argument, you resort to paying off legislators?? SHAMEFUL, BUT NOT SURPRISING!!,” he tweeted.

Advocates said they’re concerned powerful police associations will further weaken the bill.

“They’re trying to duck accountability time and time again,” said Sheila Bates, a member of the Black Lives Matter Los Angeles policy team and part of the coalition co-sponsoring the bill. “Had (Gardena Police Officer) Michael Robbins been held accountable the first, second, or third time when he shot somebody, then Kenneth Ross Jr. might still be alive.”

Records from the shooting investigation show that as Officer Robbins got near the scene he saw other officers arriving and Ross, who matched the suspect’s description, running away. Robbins parked, grabbed his assault rifle and shouted for Ross to stop.

“You’re going to get shot,” Robbins yelled.

Video from his body-worn camera shows what happened next.

Standing behind the engine block of his squad car for cover, the barrel of Robbins’ rifle tracks Ross’ movement. Just after Ross crosses in front of Robbins’ position, maybe 100 feet away, the officer gives the trigger two quick taps. (“I gave him…a double tap that was just amazing, training just kicked in,” he told investigators later.) Ross falls to the ground dead.

It was the fourth time Robbins shot at someone in his nearly 30-year career, although his first shooting since the early 2000’s, he later said.

The Gardena Police Department, which is currently facing a lawsuit over the shooting, declined an interview request. Attorneys representing the officer also did not comment for this story.

As for Robbins, the pending decertification bill likely wouldn’t affect him. He retired from the Gardena Police Department in July 2020 with the rank of sergeant, records show. But if future officers are kicked out of the profession, it will be because of a bill named after the man he killed.

Next month, lawmakers will be taking up the Kenneth Ross Jr. Police Decertification Act of 2021.

Drone files raise new questions of evidence destruction in Vallejo police killing of Sean Monterrosa

Ashley and Michelle Monterrosa (left, holding banner) stand with activists in front of a billboard of their brother, Sean Monterrosa, who was shot in the back of the head by Vallejo police Det. Jarett Tonn on June 2, 2020. (courtesy Brian Krans)
JohnGlidden.com, by Brian Krans | May 26, 2021

VALLEJO – On June 2, 2020, Vallejo police Detective Jarrett Tonn fired his rifle five times from the back seat of an unmarked police truck as it pulled up to a Walgreens pharmacy, hitting Sean Monterrosa once in the back of the head, according to his official autopsy report.

Officers were responding to reports of widespread looting that had swept the region amid protests over the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis a week earlier.

Seconds before Tonn fired, Capt. Lee Horton announced over the radio that “it looks like they’re armed, possibly armed.” Monterrosa had a roofing hammer in the front pocket of his black hoodie. Minutes before, according to video released by Vallejo police, the 22-year-old had been using that hammer to try to pry open a locker in the pharmacy, as others had tried to do earlier in the night.

The video of Monterrosa in Walgreens is the only visual evidence the Vallejo Police Department has made public that shows Monterrosa in the final moments of his life. Police body cameras were obscured by vehicle seats and dashboards, as they were just arriving on the scene as Tonn started firing.

Coincidentally, a Medic Ambulance supervisor was reportedly flying a high-end drone in the area that an expert describes as “idiot proof.” But attorneys once representing the Monterrosa family in a civil rights and wrongful death lawsuit alleged early on that the drone had been “destroyed.”

In the following days, two lieutenants were placed on leave for allegedly destroying the windshield of the truck that Tonn fired through. The California Department of Justice investigated the allegations and said that it turned its file over in late January to the Solano County District Attorney’s office, which has recused itself from the Monterrosa case.

Newly available files related to Monterrosa’s killing obtained by JohnGlidden.com provide more insight into the investigation of it but raise new questions about what happened to any footage captured by the drone.

A forensic specialist with the U.S. Secret Service was unable to pull any data from the DJI Mavic 2 Pro drone that was at the scene, including its internal and independent “black box” memory storage that automatically records detailed information about the device’s flight path, including stills from any video that was recorded.

“If that is not there, you have serious problems,” said Werner von Stein, owner of the SF Drone School Research Center on Treasure Island and regular user of the Mavic 2. “There’s something fishy going on here.”

‘The most extraordinary incidence of lawless criminal behavior’

Monterrosa was declared dead at 1:31 a.m. on June 2, 2020, about an hour after a call went out to emergency responders about an “officer-involved shooting” at the Walgreens on Redwood Street. One of Tonn’s bullets struck Monterrosa in the base of his skull, leaving him with just a few minutes to live, according to the Solano County Sheriff’s forensic pathologist’s report.

Moneterrosa’s body was removed from the scene and transported by Medic Ambulance to Kaiser Hospital in Vallejo.

Medic Ambulance would send Monterrosa — who was dead before they transported him — a bill for $3,244.85.

Since dusk, Vallejo had been besieged with cars full of people breaking into various businesses around the city.

Napa County Sheriff’s Office Deputy Joshua Coleman — a former Vallejo police officer involved in multiple shootings himself — responded to Vallejo to see “the most extraordinary incidence of lawless criminal behavior that I have ever witnessed in my entire 14 year career.”

Coleman wrote that he was concerned after hearing several gun stores had been attacked in the previous few days. “I could hear passerby residents yelling violent threats at the officers on every scene,” he wrote. “It was a very dangerous and volatile situation; I was keenly aware of the likelihood that officers could encounter armed burglars.”

The city of Vallejo’s first response to the events reflected how the business community was impacted. At a press conference the day after Monterrosa was killed, City Manager Greg Nyhoff described the groups entering the city as “packs.” The city would request help from the National Guard after someone lit a fire at City Hall.

City officials refused to discuss the shooting of Monterrosa that day. In fact, Vallejo Police Chief Shawny Williams waited 38.5 hours to report the shooting had been fatal, despite pledging transparency after being sworn in as the city’s first Black police chief months before.

Williams initially described Monterrosa’s stature as being on his knees with his hands above his waist. He also listed criminal charges associated with Monterrosa’s name, though Monterrosa had not been convicted of any of them. Vallejo police started gathering that information following his death.

Hours after his death, Monterrosa’s sisters contacted the Solano County coroner’s office to learn their brother was dead. Meanwhile, Vallejo Police Assistant Allen Pigg sent a handwritten fax to San Francisco police, asking for “all police reports in your possession regarding Sean Monterrosa.”

While Vallejo police portrayed Monterrosa as a criminal, the Vallejo Police Officers Association quickly filed legal actions against the city from releasing Tonn’s name, citing fears for his and his family’s safety. Despite the fact that his name was quickly made public in local news reports and eventually The New Yorker,  nearly a year later, the department has yet to officially release it. Department-released body camera footage of the shooting blurred his face and any mention of his name.

But reports from the San Mateo County Forensics Laboratory obtained by JohnGlidden.com lists “Officer Tonn” as the victim in the investigation surrounding Monterrosa’s death. Tonn was involved in three shootings since 2014, though Monterrosa was the first that was fatal.

Vallejo police regularly list themselves as the victims in use-of-force reports.

‘The video files of interest had no content’

Solano County District Attorney’s Investigator Charles Renfro was one of several investigators on the scene after Monterrosa was shot. Renfro and Vallejo Detective Terry Schillinger contacted William “Billy’” White, an operations manager for Medic Ambulance who was flying a drone over the Walgreens “at or around” the time of the burglaries, according to Renfro’s report.

Noting that Schillinger left a voicemail message for White to call him back, Renfro also interviewed a resident in the area who said she “observed a drone flying around the Walgreens just before the [officer-involved shooting],” his report states.

For other details, Renfro pointed other investigators to reports from Schillinger, but those reports have not yet been made public.

According to White’s claim for reimbursement with the city, the drone was confiscated at Medic Ambulance’s office in Vallejo, which is on the same block as the Walgreens. White wrote he had “reported [the] event to Capt. [Jason] Potts” and he had been “working” with Detective Jason Scott. The city reimbursed White $2,499.76 for his equipment on July 28.

Reached by phone Tuesday, White said it would be “completely inappropriate” to comment about what happened with his drone.

Nine days after Tonn killed Monterossa — Steven Baskerville, a Secret Service agent working at the National Computer Forensics Institute Lab at the University of Tulsa in Oklahoma received a DJI Mavic 2 Pro drone, controller, and seventh-generation iPad from Detective Kevin Rose of the Vallejo Police Department and Andre Charles, chief investigator at the Solano County District Attorney’s Office.

Baskerville wrote in his final report to Vallejo police that he hooked the devices up to various data-retrieving programs, like Cellebrite, DataPilot, Forensic Toolkit, and HxD, but his searches weren’t fruitful.

“The recovered video files from the external flash media were corrupt and unreadable. Additionally, the video files of interest had no content,” Baskerville wrote in his report.

Baskerville found an MP4 file created on June 2 on the SD card, but the file’s internal data had been “overwritten” with zeros. All files from that day, he found, “contained no data.” Baskerville wrote that after “further research” he found that DJI drones can “overwrite” when they’re “improperly shutdown.”

That, to von Stein, seems odd. “It’s electronic. It can happen, but it’s not the norm. It’s rare,” he said. “That sounds like it was wiped.”

Brittany K. Jackson, Vallejo police’s public information officer, said the drone was handled within department policy and chain of custody was followed.

“The VPD made several attempts to try and recover the information [from the drone],” Jackson said over email. “We were not able to recover the information, so we sent it to the agency experts at the Secret Service for possible data recovery by personnel trained to recover lost or corrupted data.”

As noted in the Secret Service report, “all files on the drone and the iPad were unreadable,” Jackson said, despite Vallejo police expecting “the drone to work and for its memory to contain supporting evidence.”

Werner von Stein, owner of the SF Drone School Research Center runs experiments on a DJI Mavic 2 drone, the same model that reportedly recorded video around the time of Sean Monterrosa’s death. (Courtesy Brian Krans)

Von Stein’s office is tucked in a corner of a former military building on Treasure Island. His specialty is aerial photography for map-making, which began with physical film and radio-controlled airplanes made of paper and balsa wood. He now handles much more sophisticated, yet user-friendly, drones for entities like the city of San Francisco.

DJI is the largest drone maker and considers the Mavic 2 to be its flagship consumer drone. It’s consistently one of the top-rated drones on the market. “It’s idiot-proof,” von Stein said.

The Mavic wouldn’t likely get that kind of praise if it had the major design flaw of erasing or overwriting a video file if the device was shut down improperly. Its hardware and software are designed to keep the drones from running into something and crashing, including automatically returning when battery levels become critically low.

While Baskerville’s report doesn’t say how the Mavic was improperly shutdown, von Stein theorized it could have been due to user error by pulling out the SD card or battery before stopping a recording. That could corrupt all the files on a card, but that’s where DJI’s software comes in.

Even if a file on the removable SD card is corrupted, von Stein said a Mavic’s “black box” — which begins recording every time a Mavic drone takes off — shouldn’t be affected.

Werner von Stein, owner of the SF Drone School Research Center, explains the details contained in what a “black box” on a DJI Mavic 2 drone records. (Brian Krans)

“The black box is independent of the SD card,” he said. “If that is not there, you have a serious problem.”

Besides the flight pattern, the drone’s black box records numerous data points, including when and where video recording started and stopped, as well as the direction of the camera and pictures of what’s on screen. That means the drone should have records of whether it captured video of Tonn shooting Monterossa, if it was recording and in-frame at the time.

To affect any of the Mavic 2’s black box recordings, a device must be physically connected via micro USB cable to the physical device.

Werner von Stein, owner of the SF Drone School Research Center, shows off an example of what an iPad connected to a DJI Mavic 2 drone would internally record while in flight. (Brian Krans)

But flight records, as well as any recorded video, are also normally saved in the DJI Go app, which should have been on the iPad submitted to the Secret Service, von Stein said.

“This is all independent. It technically should be there,” he said, adding he’s never personally experienced data disappearing like that in a DJI drone.

Even if the video wasn’t saved, the drone operator would have seen what the drone’s camera was capturing in real time. Von Stein says no drone pilots fly without paying attention to what’s on screen.

All told, Baskerville’s report says he was unable to pull any video files from the removable 128GB micro SD card, the drone’s internal memory or from the 128GB iPad. Nothing was readable, even with some of the most advanced software available to the federal government.

There’s no visible damage to the drone in a photo included in the report, so von Stein said it’s unlikely the power failure was caused by a crash. In most other cases, he said, it’s operator error.

While its manual warns to “remove the battery when it is turned on,” the Mavic 2 does have fail safes built in that allows the drone to store recordings in several places when its power is cut off by simply by putting in a battery again.

Von Stein was able to easily recreate this in his lab, as CJI’s app was able to catch up once the battery was put back in. Baskerville’s report doesn’t state whether he tried putting a fresh battery into the Mavic 2, but one wasn’t mentioned in his report.

Despite using several programs to pull data from the Mavic 2 Pro, Baskerville concluded in his report that the video files “contained no data and could not be reconstituted.”

‘We will bring it to light’

Monterrosa’s killing came amid a pandemic and the largest public outrage over police violence in modern U.S. history. The case received national attention as Monterrosa’s sisters, Michelle and Ashley, continued to push for justice for their brother.

Asked about the possibility of evidence from the drone being destroyed, Ashley Monterrosa said “this is one of those cases where they shoot first and ask questions later.”

“They want to get rid of whatever evidence that would signify there was no probable cause,” she said.

Vallejo police Lt. Michael Nichelini, then-head of the department’s traffic division and president of its police union, was put on paid leave last July for allegedly destroying the windshield of the truck, which attorneys for Monterrosa’s family said was a key piece of evidence. Crime scene logs say Nichelini was at the Walgreens the morning of the shooting assisting with the investigation.

Lt.  Fabio Rodriguez, head of investigations, was also put on leave around the same time. The state Justice Department opened an investigation into Vallejo police policies and the destruction of the windshield but declined at the time to review the Monterrosa shooting.

But the DOJ said it turned over its investigative file into the alleged destruction of evidence to the Solano County District Attorney’s Office four months ago when Xavier Becerra was attorney general. A DOJ spokesperson declined to elaborate on the findings.

Chief Williams sent Nichelini a notice of termination on Dec. 21, not long after a VPOA email was sent to then-San Francisco Chronicle columnist Otis Taylor Jr., who took the message as a threat. Weeks before he was fired, Nichelini filed a lawsuit seeking $7.5 million in damages from the department and city, claiming unjust treatment. Days after he was terminated, Nichelini filed an amended complaint seeking $10 million and his old job back.

On May 13, Attorney General Rob Bonta, who Gov. Gavin Newsom appointed earlier this year, announced that his office would take over the investigation into Monterrosa’s shooting. In his announcement, Bonta said the police investigation was done by March 10. The findings were given to Solano County District Attorney Krishna Abrams’ office, which then tried to deliver the investigative file to the Justice Department, according to Bonta.

Abrams tried to do something similar with Becerra, regarding the file from the 2019 Vallejo police killing of Willie McCoy Jr. The DOJ refused to get involved, saying there was no reason local authorities couldn’t handle it.

Abrams’ office did not respond to a request for comment.

None of the agencies have publicly disclosed Vallejo police’s findings in those cases.

In August, when Bonta was a state assemblymember in the East Bay, he voted in favor of AB1506, which requires the state DOJ to conduct an independent investigation into any fatal police shooting involving an unarmed person. That law goes into effect in July.

Whether Monterrosa would be considered armed under the new law is unclear because he had a hammer in the pocket of his sweatshirt. But Bonta’s starting with that case.

Bonta instead said in a statement that he was stepping in because Abrams had abdicated her responsibility.

“Seeing the failure of the District Attorney to fulfill this important responsibility, my office will review the [Monterrosa] case to ensure a fair, thorough, and transparent process is completed,” Bonta said. “If there has been wrongdoing, we will bring it to light.”


Brian Krans is a freelance reporter in the East Bay who covers public health, from cops to COVID. Follow him on Twitter: @citizenkrans. Investigative reporter Scott Morris was editor for this article