The 2020-21 Solano County civil grand jury found that local law enforcement agencies comply with legal requirements when providing diversity and bias training, but jurors also noted that such training is only required every five years – and that needs to change, jurors said.
In a nine-page document issued June 30, titled “Does Bias Infiltrate Solano County Law Enforcement?” the grand jury pointed out that local police and Sheriff’s Office leaders agreed there is “too much time between training sessions” and its primary recommendation is for county law enforcement agencies adopt a more frequent schedule of diversity and bias training “over and above the current five-year requirement.”
In their one-paragraph summary, jurors found that police officers and deputies followed the guidelines defined by law, established through the Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training, or POST.
But after jury members interviewed officers and police chiefs in six major cities and Sheriff’s personnel – and reviewed each agency’s policies – they found that operating “in accord with the POST guidelines is not enough,” according to the report.
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Local policing agencies “must go further to ensure elimination of bias as well as safety and equity for the citizens of Solano County,” they concluded.
In a second finding, jurors cited a lack of “adequate funding” hinders the various agencies’ ability to provide additional and more frequent training, recommending that law enforcement leaders seek more dollars for diversity and bias training. At the same time, the grand jury also recommended that the county’s police departments and the Sheriff’s Office collaborate in providing such training.
A third finding indicated that the grand jury believes more “underrepresented people,” that is, ethnic minorities, need to be in decision-making roles, recommending that law enforcement agencies “promote more underrepresented people to decision making positions.”
In a lengthy fourth finding, the grand jury cited state Penal Code section 13651, which, in short, states that police and sheriff’s offices that review job descriptions used to recruit peace officers “shall make changes that emphasize community-based policing, familiarization between law enforcement and community residents, and collaborative problem solving, while de-emphasizing the paramilitary aspects of the job.” Jury members also discovered that “all administrators mentioned the general population’s lack of trust of law enforcement officers.”
Grand jurors, thus, recommended that training de-emphasize a paramilitary approach to policing and collaborate with community organizations to problem-solve.
“Employee turnover” is a problem “for some” law enforcement agencies, they found in a fifth finding, recommending specifically that Suisun City increase the length of its employment contract to five years and find ways to achieve pay equity in the county to limit turnover in smaller communities.
In the sixth and final finding, the grand jury noted reports from the FBI that extremist groups are “infiltrating” law enforcement agencies.
“While local law enforcement agencies investigate applicants as part of the vetting process, they rely on employee and citizen complaints to identify current staff social media postings for extremist ideology,” according to the report’s wording.
Jurors made three recommendations: 1) that county law enforcement agencies monitor social media postings by current staff for extremist content; 2) that law enforcement leaders “keep up with the technology that their employees are using”; and 3) that law enforcement leaders “research and implement technology” which assists in monitoring social media without violating First Amendment rights under the Constitution.
The grand jury’s report, one of several recently issued, comes as the Black Lives Matter movement has gained prominence in the wake of the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, who was convicted last month for Floyd’s May 25, 2020, murder.
Floyd was detained after trying to pass a counterfeit $20 bill at a convenience store. During the arrest, Chauvin knelt on his neck for some nine minutes as Floyd, face down on street pavement, cried out that he could not breathe.
It was an example, whether or not bias was involved, of how routine encounters can escalate or turn deadly, as they did with the police killings of Eric Garner on Staten Island and Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., both in 2014, among many others.
Police training and programs that focus on implicit bias have emerged as a key component of police reform efforts nationwide in an effort to engender trust in policing.
Besides interviewing officers, deputies law enforcement agency leaders, grand jury members relied on numerous reports, including “Can Cops Unlearn Their Unconscious Biases?” a 2017 Atlantic article; a report by the Brookings Institution about how the U.S. is diversifying even faster than predicted; and a report from openvallejo.org, an online newsroom, reporting that Solano County Sheriff’s deputies and a Vacaville City Council member potentially promoted anti-government militia, including the posting of Three Percenter imagery on their public social media pages.
Additionally, they noted an April 18, 2021, segment of “60 Minutes” investigated the Oath Keepers, an identified extremist group, and their role in the Jan. 6 insurrection. “A leader of the Oath Keepers in Arizona proudly proclaimed they have many members in police forces around their state,” jurors wrote in the report.
Research organizations such as the Blue Ribbon Panel on Transparency, Accountability and Fairness in Law Enforcement and the Plain View Project have uncovered hundreds of federal, state, and local law enforcement officials participating in racist, nativist, and sexist social media activity. “Departments often know about these officers’ activities, but those activities have only resulted in disciplinary action or termination if they trigger public concern,” according to the report.
In its “statement of facts” section of the report, jurors wrote: “The biggest problem in addressing possible biases is that unconscious biases are part of growing up in an atmosphere in which stereotypes are part of everyday life (the thinking we are exposed to as children influences how we interpret events and people around us).”
“Researchers have found that people can consciously embrace fairness and equality, but on tests measuring subconscious tendencies, they still lean on stereotypes in profiling people they don’t know,” jurors added.
“The results can be surprising for those that do not feel they have any biases,” the grand jury report indicated.
On September 22nd, 2020, the Solano County Board of Supervisors listened to our county’s employees as they described how Solano County’s hiring and promotions system was bogged down by institutional racism. After much discussion, the Board, on a 5-0 vote, created a Subcommittee on Diversity and Equity. On a 3-2 vote, the Board approved funding of $150,000 to support the work of the Subcommittee.
The members of the Subcommittee on Diversity and Equity, including chair Erin Hannigan and Board Chair John Vasquez, have most likely met a few times since last year. I imagine the Subcommittee has hired an equity consultant, as planned, to assist with the process of focusing on internal human resources operations and delivering equitable services to the County’s residents.
As a constituent I am pleased to see that when an important issue like institutional racism in the County’s hiring practices must be addressed, the Board is capable of coming together as a team.
The Board of Supervisors now has another opportunity, via Assembly Bill 1185, to create a Citizens’ Oversight Board for the Sheriff’s Office.
Civilian oversight benefits the public AND benefits police and sheriff’s departments, by …
Improving community relations through more open communication between the Sheriff’s Office and the public;
Reassuring the community that misconduct is investigated, and that appropriate discipline and training will occur;
Increasing the public’s understanding of law enforcement policies and procedures;
Improving those policies and procedures; and
Assessing liability management, thereby reducing the likelihood and cost of litigation.
Please, Supervisor Brown, I hope you will once again raise the motion to agendize the proposal of discussing a Civilian Oversight Board. I hope one of the two members of the Diversity and Equity Subcommittee will be a good team member and second Supervisor Brown’s motion.
VALLEJO – Solano County Sheriff Tom Ferrara announced on Friday that he would run for reelection in 2022, seeking another four-year term after 10 years in the position.
Ferrara has faced recent controversy after it was revealed that several deputies posted symbols of the Three Percenter anti-government militia on social media. Ferrara declined to investigate the extent of extremism in his department, falsely said the FBI cleared the deputies of association with extremist groups, and has faced calls for new oversight of his office.
In a video message posted on Facebook Friday morning, Ferrara touted the support of the deputies’ union and the correctional officers’ union. “Now more than ever Solano County needs proven leadership,” Ferrara said. “I have shown this type of leadership through multiple disasters, civil unrest and the pandemic, which we’ve all experienced in the last few years.”
Ferrara was appointed sheriff in 2012 after his predecessor retired. He won his first election unopposed in 2014 and fended off challenges from sheriff’s Deputy Daryl Snedeker and Fairfield police Lt. Dan Marshall in 2018.
But Ferrara has faced political controversy and protest in recent months after an investigative report revealed that three high-profile members of his staff had openly displayed Three Percenter emblems on social media pages.
They included Sgt. Roy Stockton, a Vacaville councilmember who was endorsed by Ferrara, Sgt. Cully Pratt, the department’s former public information officer, SWAT team member Sgt. Ty Pierce, and Deputy Dale Matsuoka, the department’s homeless outreach coordinator.
In response to the revelations, Ferrara said in a statement that the employees named “all serve this agency and this community with passion and dedication.”
Ferrara argued that the deputies had intended to show support for the 2nd Amendment, but Three Percenter groups often call for violent resistance to the federal government if they interpret restrictions on gun possession as against their interpretation of the Constitution. Three Percenter groups have been implicated in bombing and kidnapping plots and the attack on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.
The sheriff later defended the deputies by writing in letters to Benicia Black Lives Matter and the Solano County Democratic Central Committee that he “consulted with the FBI, who confirmed none of my employees are members of any extremist organizations.”
But the FBI disputed Ferrara’s statement, saying that it did not track participation in extremist groups nor is it “sufficient basis for an FBI investigation.”
Unsatisfied by the sheriff’s response, members of Benicia Black Lives Matter have called for the Solano County Board of Supervisors to create an oversight board of the sheriff’s office.
But only Supervisor Monica Brown supported even discussing the suggestion. Meanwhile, the Solano County Republicans have organized in opposition to any new oversight.
Benicia Black Lives Matter has continued to protest the sheriff’s office, including staging a rally outside the sheriff’s office on the anniversary of the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
Scott Morris is an independent journalist in Oakland covering policing, protest and civil rights. If you appreciate his work please consider making a contribution.
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.”
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.
“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.
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 FranciscoChronicle 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