On Sept. 30, California joined 46 other states with the legal means to decertify bad cops, those who engage in serious misconduct. Thanks to the hard work of state Sen. Steven Bradford, Gov. Newsom signed Senate Bill 2, the Kenneth Ross, Jr. Police Decertification Act of 2021.
While important for California, this legislation is particularly meaningful for Vallejo, where 19 — mostly young Black and Brown men — have been killed by Vallejo police since 2010. This is one of the highest rates in the country. Fourteen officers — aptly named “the fatal 14” — have been involved in multiple killings with no consequences. They leave behind the devastating loss of their victims’ family members and civil rights settlements for their misconduct paid out by the city, totaling some of the highest in the nation.
Elected Vallejo Assembly District 14 delegates Brenda Crawford, Susan George, Ruscal Cayangyang, Susannah Delano and Thomas Bilbo successfully joined forces with all Region 2 delegates last March to ensure that SB 2 was formally endorsed by the California Democratic Party. Assembly Member Timothy Grayson and Sen. Bill Dodd both signed off on the bill.
This legislation is an important step in holding Vallejo police accountable, but ongoing community action and proper enforcement will be critical to any lasting change.
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
Vallejo police officers accused of bending their badges to commemorate their killings may be immune from consequences because the city waited too long to investigate, according to legal experts and the attorney for the fired ex-captain who blew the whistle on the purported practice.
Police Chief Shawny Williams said last week that his department is opening an “official inquiry” into allegations by a former police captain that some officers bent the tips of their seven-point stars, which he said would amount to misconduct. “I’m not going to tolerate something like that,” Williams said.
But the state’s Peace Officers’ Bill of Rights sets a one-year deadline for taking disciplinary action against officers after police officials learn of alleged misconduct. That sets up a potential legal fight in Vallejo if badge-bending officers are identified.
The ex-captain, John Whitney, who was second-in-command in the Vallejo force, said through his attorney that he learned of the badge-bending ritual in April 2019, informed then-Chief Andrew Bidou that month and unsuccessfully sought an investigation. Whitney was fired four months later.
His attorney, Alison Berry Wilkinson, said that before his ouster he ordered supervisors to inspect officers’ uniforms and collect any bent badges. After 10 badges were turned in and held in a box in the office of Bidou’s executive assistant, Wilkinson said, Bidou told Whitney the repair costs could raise suspicion and cost him his job. Instead, the chief had the badges returned to officers, who were to fix them on their own, Wilkinson said.
“We’re skeptical that any investigation of badge-bending will be effective in holding any officer accountable, both because they destroyed the evidence of the misconduct, by returning the badges to the officers, and because the statute of limitations has expired,” Wilkinson said.
She said then-Chief Bidou and Vallejo City Manager Greg Nyhoff “were aware of the badge-bending in April 2019 but did nothing. The statute of limitations runs from the date of discovery. Anyone involved can now deny it with impunity.”
Assistant City Manager Anne Cardwell told The Chronicle on July 28 that the city is aware of previous complaints about badge-bending.
“In conferring this evening with the City Manager,” Cardwell wrote, “he noted that the Mayor had advised him last year regarding rumors of such a prior practice in years past at the Police Dept., and that he, the City Manager, then immediately consulted with former Police Chief Bidou, who indicated it had been previously investigated and such claims had not been substantiated.”
Attempts to reach Bidou and Nyhoff were unsuccessful Friday. Williams said the investigation would go on regardless of these concerns.
“There is no statute of limitations on moral obligations,” he said. “The ethical standards of conduct and the moral imperative to honor dignity and life exceeds legal statutes of limitations. As chief of police, it is my responsibility to uncover the truth, increase trust through accountability and take corrective actions when warranted.”
A badge-bending investigation could be important for reasons besides discipline, if it led to changes in department policies or mended public distrust. It could also be driven by a desire to improve training, said San Francisco union attorney Gregg Adam, who has represented police officers in disciplinary proceedings and has no involvement with the Vallejo case.
Still, Adam agreed with Wilkinson’s analysis, saying she “is 100% correct.”
“The chief is quoting from the gospel, not the Peace Officers’ Bill of Rights,” Adam said.
California legislators enacted the one-year deadline to force police agencies to promptly address misconduct.
The statute carries several exceptions that can allow the one-year limit to be extended, including if an allegation is also the subject of a pending criminal investigation or lawsuit or if an investigation “involves more than one employee and requires a reasonable extension.” But authorities would need to show they were stymied by one of these factors.
Adam noted that the statute’s clock starts ticking when someone of sufficient authority “knew or should have known” about the alleged misconduct. And the person initiating the investigation doesn’t necessarily have to be a chief or city manager, Adam said. It could have been Whitney himself.
“If a captain knew about it, there’s a strong argument that that’s when the clock started,” he said.
Vallejo Mayor Bob Sampayan insisted there is no statute of limitations on the issue, and that Vallejo is still pursuing it. Bidou’s successor, Chief Williams, who was sworn in in November, has hired an outside investigator to do a “deep dive analysis into this culture of the bent badge,” Sampayan said.
He recalled feeling alarmed and distressed when Whitney approached him with the allegations, some time after he’d purportedly gone to Bidou.
Sampayan is a former police officer who joined Vallejo’s force in 1985 and trained many in the rank and file — including Whitney, he said. He’s frustrated with the recent string of alleged misdeeds in the city.
“If indeed they come up with things, then people will be disciplined,” the mayor said. “My position is because these have all been people of color that have been shot, I’m curious if this is not a civil rights violation” that could initiate an investigation by state Attorney General Xavier Becerra.
“This isn’t right to me — you don’t do this,” Sampayan said. “I’m appalled, I’m angered, and this is not what policing is all about.”
Whitney, who now works for another Bay Area police agency, is planning to sue Vallejo for wrongful termination after filing a legal claim seeking back pay, benefits, attorneys’ fees and $25,000. He says he was targeted for speaking out.
According to his claim, the city tied his firing to an investigation into a leak of confidential information, saying he improperly erased data from his phone amid the probe. Whitney said he had only erased personal information; he was exonerated in the leak case, Wilkinson said.
The Peace Officers’ Bill of Rights came into play during a 2015 scandal in San Francisco, in which several police officers were accused of exchanging racist, sexist and homophobic text messages.
Sent in 2011 and 2012, the texts included “white power” jeers and slurs against African Americans. Department brass learned about the content when it surfaced during a corruption investigation in 2012, but did not disclose it to the public until March 2015. At that point, Chief Greg Suhr announced he would fire nine of the officers involved, and discipline others.
A San Francisco Superior Court judge halted the disciplinary proceedings that December, however, ruling that the one-year time limit had run out. A state appeals court overturned that decision in 2018. In the 3-0 decision, Justice Martin Jenkins argued that the messages “displayed unacceptable prejudice against members of the communities SFPD is sworn to protect.”
At least one Vallejo police officer involved in a pending disciplinary case is seeking to assert the one-year deadline, according to Solano County Superior Court records.
In a court filing last month on behalf of an unnamed officer, attorney Justin Buffington said he was seeking to prevent the city from “imposing discipline that is time-barred by the relevant statute of limitations.” A judge sealed details of the case, and Buffington did not respond to requests for comment.
Rachel Swan and Demian Bulwa are San Francisco Chronicle staff writers.
Body camera footage released Wednesday shows that the Vallejo police officer who killed a San Francisco man in front of a Walgreens last month was in the back seat of an unmarked pickup truck that had just pulled up to the scene when he fired a high-powered rifle through the windshield.
Sean Monterrosa, 22, died after the 12:30 a.m. shooting on June 2, following a day of rallies and protests against police violence on people of color. The footage released Wednesday shows multiple views from inside the pickup truck, which officers used to respond to reports of looting at the store.
But it does not show Monterrosa as he was shot or at any point before he was struck due to the camera angles, and police said that a store security camera that might have captured the shooting had been disabled by looters.
Police Chief Shawny Williams previously said Monterrosa was on his knees and raising his arms, “revealing what appeared to be the butt of a handgun” when he was shot, but on Wednesday he offered a description that portrayed Monterrosa as an aggressor.
“One of our detectives described what he believed was 22-year-old Sean Monterrosa turning towards the officers in a crouching down, half-kneeling position, as if in preparation to shoot,” Williams said in a recorded statement. “At the same time, the detective saw Mr. Monterrosa move his hands toward his waist area, and grab what appeared to be the butt of a handgun.”
That could not be verified by the videos released Wednesday.
When asked why he changed this description, Williams told The Chronicle that he was clarifying the previous “narrative” that was not accurate.
Williams’ revised statement now aligns with the Vallejo Police Officers’ Association’s description of Monterrosa’s body language just before the shooting.
In a statement, the union wrote, “Rather than continuing his escape, Mr. Monterrosa chose to engage the responding officers. Mr. Monterrosa abruptly pivoted back around toward the officers, crouched into a tactical shooting position, and grabbed an object in his waistband that appeared to be the butt of a handgun. At no time did Mr. Monterrosa make any movements consistent with surrendering.”
The body cam footage from the pickup truck driver, which begins without sound because the body camera has an audio delay, shows the barrel of the rifle inside the vehicle and five rounds being fired as the truck comes to a stop. The officers get out of the car and yell orders at Monterrosa, who was killed by a single bullet.
“What did he point at us?” says the officer who opened fire.
“I don’t know, man,” says the officer who was driving.
“Hey, he pointed a gun at us,” says the officer who opened fire.
The officer’s name was not released Wednesday after the city’s police union filed for and received a temporary restraining order.
Williams has previously said the officer believed he saw the butt of a handgun poking out near Monterrosa’s waist and opened fire “due to this perceived threat.”
An investigation later revealed Monterrosa had a 15-inch hammer tucked into the pocket of a sweatshirt.
Roughly 100 friends and supporters of the Monterrosa family stood quietly Wednesday afternoon outside Vallejo City Hall, where Michelle and Ashley Monterrosa, the young man’s sisters, exited with their attorneys, John Burris and Melissa Nold. The sisters wiped away tears, and flowers and candles were set up on the steps. People wore shirts that said “Justice for Sean Monterrosa” and held signs that read “defund the police.”