Vallejo: 19 dead in a decade: the small American city where violent police thrive

Police killed Sean Monterrosa amid protests against brutality. His death is part of a fatal pattern in Vallejo, California

The Guardian, by Sam Levin, 13 Jun 2020
Clockwise from top left: Guy Jarreau; Ronell Foster; Sean Monterrosa; a memorial for Monterrosa; Willie McCoy as a child and an adult; and Michael Walton next to Officer David McLaughlin in footage by Adrian Burrell.

At 12.30am on 2 June, as protests for George Floyd raged across California, a Vallejo policeman fired five shots through the windshield of his unmarked car, fatally striking an unarmed young man kneeling in a parking lot.

The death of Sean Monterrosa sparked national outrage at a time when a growing number of Americans are focused on police brutality. But in Vallejo, the killing felt painfully familiar and served as a harsh reminder that the city’s police department remains one of the country’s most violent and brutal small-city forces.

The Vallejo police chief said officers on Monday night responded to calls for “potential looters” at a Walgreens. Monterrosa was kneeling with his hands raised when he was shot, the chief said, and was not observed looting. Monterrosa had a hammer in his pocket, not a gun.

Vallejo police officers have killed 19 people since 2010, one of the highest rates in the state. The officer who shot Monterrosa, Detective Jarrett Tonn, has been involved in four shootings in five years. He’s one of 14 Vallejo policemen whom residents and activists call the “Fatal 14” – officers who have repeatedly shot and killed citizens and never faced consequences.

Sean Monterrosa, second from right, was killed by Vallejo police this month at age 22. Photograph: Courtesy Monterrosa family

The crisis in Vallejo, activists and families of victims say, represents what happens when a US police department allows repeat offenders to act with impunity, where out-of-control officers keep their jobs or get promoted even after video of their abuse is exposed.

“These officers feel they can do whatever they want,” Michelle Monterrosa, Sean’s 24-year-old sister, told the Guardian. “Sean knew the system was made to oppress people of color. It hurt him to see … Sean was angry, he would say: ‘Why are they still killing us this way?’”

In a bankrupt city, police abuse is routine

A city of 121,000, Vallejo is among the most diverse zip codes in the country, with a roughly even split of black, Latino, Asian and white residents. It’s the birthplace of acclaimed California rappers and musicians like E-40 and HER, and was home to the first naval shipyard on the Pacific ocean.

The base brought good jobs and diversity, but inequality and segregation have long been part of the city’s fabric, said John Burris, a Bay Area civil rights attorney who grew up in Vallejo and graduated high school there in 1963. “The white neighborhoods were to the left and to the right, but we didn’t walk down those streets,” he recalled.

Police harassment, too, was part of growing up in Vallejo. David Hudson, 41, said officers stopped him on the way to the store and made him sit on the curb. One time, while he was driving his high school sweetheart and her 10-year-old cousin to the movies, an officer pulled them over, made them exit the vehicle and forced the child to empty out his pockets, he recalled. Another time, police busted into a party to execute a search warrant, guns pointing at his face.

Vallejo’s shipyard closed in 1996, and the area struggled in the following years. In 2008, amid the national foreclosure crisis, the city declared bankruptcy, forcing the police department to reduce its force from 126 officers to 77.

Since then, police killings have risen significantly, although there was no major surge in crime. In addition to the high rate of killings, at least six officers have fired at people three or more times since 2010, according to Open Vallejo, a public interest news site. In 2012, officers killed six people in a single year, accounting for 30% of all Vallejo homicides that year.

High-profile killings and little-reported deaths

Some of the killings were caught on camera and made national headlines after disturbing footage emerged. In one of the most high-profile cases last year, Willie McCoy, a 20-year-old rapper, had been sleeping in his car at a Taco Bell when six officers surrounded the vehicle and fired 55 shots into his vehicle into the car in just 3.5 seconds.

Other shootings barely made the news. Ronell Foster, a 33-year-old father, was shot in 2008 by one of the policemen who would later shoot McCoy. Foster was pulled over by officer Ryan McMahon for “riding a bicycle at night with no headlamp”. Body-camera footage released more than a year after the killing showed that Foster, who was unarmed, tried to flee and the policeman chased him and shot him in the back.

Guy Jarreau Jr, a 34-year-old community activist and youth mentor, was shot and killed in 2010. According to the family’s lawsuit, Jarreau was directing a small group of friends in a music video with an anti-violence message when police ordered them to disperse. Jarreau tried to follow the orders and ended up in an alley, where undercover officer Kent Tribble, shot him without warning while his hands were in the air, the civil complaint said. Police later alleged Jarreau was armed, but witnesses said they saw him holding a cup in his hand.

In a small city like Vallejo, numerous cases of brutality are connected. A few months after Willie McCoy’s killing, his 20-year-old niece, Deyana Jenkins, was pulled over, tased and arrested after not having an ID on her.

Willie McCoy, right, in a screen shot from a music video.
Pinterest   Willie McCoy, right, in a screen shot from a music video. Police killed the 20-year-old last year. Photograph: Courtesy McCoy family/YouTube

Adrian Burrell, a 30-year-old former marine and film-maker, who shares a relative with the McCoy family, was threatened and assaulted by a policeman while filming the officer detaining his cousin last year, according to a complaint. After footage of the incident went viral, new video emerged of that same officer, David McLaughlin, holding a man at gunpoint while off duty in a parking lot, and eventually punching him.

After officers kill, ‘they sweep it under the rug’

Vallejo officials have argued that they are understaffed and that budget woes have forced the city to hire inexperienced people who work in dangerous situations.

Burris, however, said part of the problem was that Vallejo does not shun officers who left previous jobs in larger cities after facing misconduct complaints.

No Vallejo officer has been charged for an on-duty shooting, though taxpayers have footed the bill for more than $7m in payouts from civil lawsuits in recent years. Officers are put on administrative leave after killings, but generally go back to work while incidents are being investigated. Inquiries into police killings often drag on for years. Some officers have killed again before prosecutors have made a decision about charges in the previous shooting. The investigation into the death of Willie McCoy continues, 480 days after the shooting.

One Vallejo officer killed three people within 21 weeks in 2012 and was promoted to detective. An officer with three shootings was recently promoted to lieutenant.

The officer who killed Ronell Foster and shot Willie McCoy is currently on paid administrative leave. The policeman who shot Guy Jarreau became a spokesman in the department.

No one cares about the victims of police killings in a city like Vallejo, said Andrea Jarreau-Griffin, Guy’s mother: “If you’re not in these big cities, they try to sweep it under the rug.” It’s been 10 years but she continues to hold out hope for charges: “I’m still trying to get his case heard.”

Ronell Foster, 33, was killed by Vallejo police in 2018.
Pinterest   Ronell Foster, 33, left, was killed by Vallejo police in 2018. Photograph: Courtesy of John Burris Law Offices

David McLaughlin, the officer who threatened Adrian Burrell, returned to duty after leave. The officer, who had fatally shot someone in 2017, was also recently accused of harassing and threatening Melissa Nold, the civil rights lawyer representing multiple families, records show. He tried to shake her hand and questioned her when she politely declined, then subsequently told her he knows she lives in Vallejo, she wrote in a complaint letter.

Nold said families of some of the victims, too, had complained of harassment and intimidation. She herself also has a pending internal affairs complaint against the police union president, Lt Michael Nichelini, who she says has filmed her while she’s sitting at public meetings. A Times Herald records request uncovered 15 minutes of Nichelini’s cellphone footage trained on her along with photos he took.

“If you’re going to openly attack a civil rights lawyer, what do you think they are doing to black people in dark alleys?” Nold said.

“There is no accountability within our system,” said Kori McCoy, Deyana’s father and Willie’s brother. “We know this is bad policing. They are killing people who are not in the act of committing any crime, people with their hands up.

“Just treat us as equals, that’s all we want, just stop the killings,” said Paula McGowan, Foster’s mother. “Don’t give them a slap on the wrist and let them take a couple days off of paid administrative leave.”

Adrian Burrell has moved out of Vallejo and rarely returns, even though his family is still there. “Officer McLaughlin still patrols my neighborhood. I can’t go to that place without thinking, is this the day he’s going to pull me over? Or is a buddy of his going to recognize me? This is a person who violated my rights, who the city decided deserved to go back on the police force.”

Burrell cried on the phone while discussing his fears of police, and the choices he would have to make when confronted by law enforcement: “Do I stand up for myself and potentially lose my life or do I lose my dignity and humanity and survive? It’s a horrible decision.”

What comes next: ‘Enough is enough’

Following Sean Monterrosa’s killing, California’s justice department announced it would investigate Vallejo police, a move activists have long requested.

Some had hoped 2020 might be different for Vallejo. The city’s new police chief, Shawny Williams, is the first black officer to run the department. And up until this month, the city had gone more than a year without a killing.

Monterrosa’s death has sparked outrage in Vallejo and San Francisco, his hometown. The 22-year-old, well-known in the Bernal Heights neighborhood, was an avid skateboarder and artist who loved reading Malcolm X and literature about the border and criminal justice, his two sisters said. Their parents are Argentinian immigrants, and Sean, who had worked as a tutor and youth mentor, dreamed of buying and remodeling a rundown house for his mother.

He was about to start a new carpentry job when he was killed.

The basic circumstances of the killing, and Williams’ handling of the aftermath, have enraged activists. It took him more than a day to confirm a fatal shooting had occurred, and when he did, he defended the officer, pointing at the hammer in Monterrosa’s pocket and arguing that shooting through a windshield was allowed under policy. He also focused on the looting that night in Vallejo, even though Monterrosa had not broken into the store. He discussed Monterrosa’s past charges, although the 22-year-old had not been convicted in those cases and the officer knew nothing of his record or identity when he killed him.

Sean Monterrosa, second from right.
Pinterest   Sean Monterrosa, second from right. Photograph: Courtesy Monterrosa family

The police union has offered a conflicting account and said Monterrosa did not make movements consistent with surrendering.

Williams has not released body-camera footage or confirmed the officer’s name, which only became public when Open Vallejo and the Bay Area News Group reported it.

None of the officers responded to requests for comment and the police department and union did not answer inquiries for this story.

Monterrosa’s sisters said they want justice for their brother, but they would also like to see major changes to how public safety works in this country.

“We need to go to school and educate ourselves and get into office and dismantle the police,” said Michelle, his sister. “It’s not just about Sean. It’s about everyone else. We know if Sean was still here, he would want the same. Because enough is enough. How many more lives are going to be taken by police?”