Police killings, community distrust and limited resources prove to be a complicated backdrop for reforming law enforcement in Vallejo

Just around the corner from the Vallejo Police Department, the black-and-white portrait of a young Latinx man looks over the street, his warm eyes and infectious smile filling the left side of the billboard. Nearby, the same image, this time in color, is found on a hand-sized sticker outside Vallejo’s downtown post office, beaming as pedestrians pass by with their mail.

Emblazoned on both images is an unmistakable message: “Justice for Sean Monterrosa.”

Since his death just after midnight on June 2, 2020 at the hands of a city police detective, Sean’s sisters, Ashley and Michelle Monterrosa, and the Vallejo community have refused to let his death be forgotten in the city of about 120,000.

“We want Sean to be the last person killed by the Vallejo Police Department,” says Michelle. “We understand how difficult that is with this Police Department. Kids are counting the days until they’re the next hashtag.”

The sisters have become the latest members of an exclusive group that no one wants to join, one composed of the family and friends of men — brothers, nephews, sons, fathers — killed by Vallejo police over the past decade. But even as they grieve, they are leading the fight to reform a troubled department that has killed 19 people under questionable circumstances and with near impunity since 2010. 

Many of them have taken to the streets in protest; others have taken their message online. And although their aims may sometimes differ, together they have found a voice calling for change.

Ashley Monterrosa (left) speaks on the stage with her sister Michelle Monterrosa (right) during Tucan Day, a public event held to honor Sean Monterrosa, near Holly Park, in San Francisco, Calif., on Jun. 12, 2020. (Harika Maddala/ Bay City News)

“We’re turning pain into power,” the sisters say.

Although Vallejo police leadership has in most cases defended its individual officers, even the department acknowledges the need for change.

Police spokeswoman Brittany K. Jackson said police have begun a process of self-reform by improving several departmental policies, including requiring officers to turn on body-worn cameras every time they interact with the community. Jackson said the department has improved its de-escalation policy, code of conduct and standard of ethics.

“Reform looks like enhanced levels of trust and legitimacy, increased accountability and oversight, and our ability to develop future leaders that carry out the principles of 21st-century policing,” said Jackson. 

California Attorney General Rob Bonta. Bonta was sworn in as the 34th Attorney General of the State of California on April 23, 2021. (Photo courtesy Office of the California Attorney General)

Meanwhile, the call to action by grieving relatives appears to have paid off as California Attorney General Rob Bonta announced on May 13 that his office would investigate Sean Monterrosa’s death to determine whether criminal charges should be filed in the case.  

“It’s past time Sean Monterrosa’s family, the community and the people of Vallejo get some answers,” Bonta said. “They deserve to know where the case stands. Instead, they’ve been met with silence. It’s time for that to change; it’s time for action.”

Other cities grapple with issues

The death in Minneapolis of George Floyd, followed by Sean Monterrosa’s death and other high-profile acts of violence by police in the country, have together brought new urgency to debates over how to make police departments more accountable to the communities they purport to serve.  In this multi-article series, the Bay City News Foundation examines how the cities of Richmond, Oakland and San Francisco have approached police reform, the degree to which those methods have worked and whether they can be replicated successfully in Vallejo.

Most major cities have grappled with calls for more accountability and are debating a variety of old and new approaches.

For Oakland, the “Riders” scandal nearly 20 years ago put the city’s Police Department under a federal monitor after four Oakland police officers were accused of beating residents and planting evidence on them. That monitor went on to oversee major changes in the department.

However, 18 years later, debate continues on whether such an oversight model helps or hinders reforming the department. Opponents, many in the department itself, claim the federal monitor continuously resets goals in order to keep his job, while supporters believe the monitor has actually helped make the department more accountable.

In Richmond, a police chief took a different approach to bringing change to a city that experienced a high crime rate. Plagued by a lack of trust between the Police Department and a community that was mostly non-white, then-Police Chief Chris Magnus (currently nominated by President Joe Biden as Commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection) began a focus on community policing after he was hired in 2006. Magnus sought to repair relations between his officers and the community by assigning police to specific beat areas in the city. Officers were required to list their phone numbers and email addresses publicly and post their work shifts online.

The new practice has been accompanied by a reduction in major crimes. Between 2015 and 2020, for example, Richmond hovered around 20 homicides per year — down from a recent peak of 38 in 2004 (and as many as 61 in the early 1990s). 

Across the Bay in San Francisco, city leaders have deployed unarmed, non-police teams to take over most police calls that reference code 800 – which describes a “report of a mentally disturbed person.”

Using unarmed teams is one approach advocated by those who call for “defunding the police” — that is, not eliminating police funding but removing some money from a police department to use on other, unarmed responses that may prove more effective (and improve police-community relations in so doing). The approach has been challenged by some San Francisco police officers, who express skepticism about the wisdom of unarmed teams.

Three cities, three different paths to police reform. None of them has been a complete success but each has something to recommend it. In some cases, these steps have been combined with other measures — the creation of civilian-led police commissions and the adoption of such technologies as ShotSpotter gunshot detection systems and body cameras. Now the question is whether one or more of these approaches can be brought to bear in Vallejo, where the history of police killings underscores the need for meaningful reform.

“We want to make some change”

Just hours prior to the shooting of Sean Monterrosa, Vallejo city officials instituted a rare curfew after receiving information that groups of individuals planned to loot businesses and cause mayhem throughout the city. Over the course of the night, police responded multiple times to reports of looting at a local Walgreens, and shortly after midnight, officers saw 10 to 12 “potential looters in the parking lot.”

The Vallejo Walgreens where Sean Monterrosa, 22, was shot and killed by a Vallejo police officer. (Screen grab Google Earth)

Most of the individuals got into two separate cars, fleeing the scene and leading police on a pursuit. But one person remained behind.

At the same time, more officers in an unmarked pickup truck drove into the parking lot. Seconds after arriving, Police Detective Jarrett Tonn aimed his AR-15 assault rifle from the truck’s backseat, firing five times through the windshield at the kneeling man.

Sean Monterrosa was struck once in the neck. He died shortly after.

Following the shooting, Vallejo Police Chief Shawny Williams alleged that Monterrosa had placed “his hands above his waist,” revealing what appeared to be a handgun. It turned out to be a hammer tucked into Sean’s sweatshirt. Williams further asserted Monterrosa was “turning towards the officers in a crouching down, half-kneeling position, as if in preparation to shoot” — an account the family strongly denies. 

More than 45 minutes prior to his death, Monterrosa sent a text message to his sisters, urging them to sign a petition demanding justice for the death of George Floyd, who had been killed a week earlier by a Minneapolis police officer. 

Sean Monterrosa, second from right, and family members. (Photo courtesy Monterrosa family)

The Monterrosa family, including Sean, had always been involved in racial justice activism. But “it’s just different now when it hits home,” says Michelle. “[Protests] won’t bring our brother back, but we want to bring attention to our brother’s case.”

Ashley concurs, stating that with the ongoing protests against police brutality, now is the time to push for reform of the Vallejo Police Department. 

“We can’t sit at home,” she says. “We want to make some change.”

Down the rabbit hole

Until recently, public outcry following a fatal officer-involved shooting in Vallejo typically lasted a few news cycles before generally fading from the public eye. 

That changed markedly in February 2019 when Willie McCoy, a 20-year-old aspiring rapper, was shot and killed by police in a brutal scene that shocked even a community used to police violence.

After McCoy fell asleep in a Taco Bell drive-thru, police were called on a wellness check. In body-cam footage and audio taken that night, arriving officers can be heard saying that a gun was in Willie’s lap. 

The footage does not clearly show a weapon but, in any case, after announcing they see a gun, five officers surround the vehicle before McCoy appears to stir. They shout at McCoy for about three seconds before proceeding to fire. A sixth officer runs over and fires once before an officer blocks his line of view. All together, the six officers shoot 55 bullets in 3.5 seconds. 

McCoy was pronounced dead at the scene. An autopsy report showed that he was shot 38 times, including in the heart and both lungs. 

The McCoy family, which has previously described the shooting as an “execution by firing squad,” has long questioned the validity of the police allegations, including whether he had a gun at all.

A Vallejo Police body cam captures when Willie McCoy was shot outside of a Taco Bell drive-thru. Police were called to the scene because McCoy was unresponsive, with a gun in his lap. (Frame grab courtesy Vallejo Police Department)

“I’ve always had reservations about the circumstances and the narrative put out by the city,” says Kori McCoy, Willie’s older brother. “It was never an option or thought to accept that narrative. … I don’t care if Willie had an AK-47 on his lap. They took the wrong approach that night to wake him up.”

Just like the Monterrosa sisters, Kori and his family have sought to reform the Vallejo Police Department as a way to honor their loved one. In November, Kori and his cousin, David Harrison, started a new podcast called “The Secrets of the Rabbit Hole Podcast” to challenge city and police accounts of fatal, officer-involved shootings.

“One of the goals is to have other impacted families come on and tell their truth,” explains Kori, who adds the podcast was a year in the making. “We also want to use the venue to get information out outside of the city’s narrative.”

The first episode tackled an article from the independent newsroom Open Vallejo, which reported that some Vallejo police officers bent the points of their badges to mark their involvement in a fatal shooting — a practice that only came to light after the death of Willie McCoy. 

Kori said it was “somewhat satisfying” to have the department’s potential misdeeds finally uncovered after his family expressed concern over police behavior for more than a year. In the podcast episode, Harrison suggested that Willie’s life was taken to initiate several officers into the badge-bending group as part of a “blood-oath ritual.”

“In the days to come, we’re going to find more corruption in the Vallejo Police Department, and outside the police, we’re going to find more corruption on the City Council,” Harrison said in the episode. 

While the Monterrosa sisters remain optimistic that their brother will be the last person killed without justification by Vallejo police, Kori doesn’t share the same outlook.

“It’s going to happen again,” he says. “There is nothing in place to hold these officers accountable.”

Still, that hasn’t stopped the McCoys from taking steps to help others like themselves.  Along with their podcast, the family has launched The Willie McCoy Foundation to support those affected  by police violence by providing access to civil rights attorneys and activists, and by putting them in touch with other families who have experienced the loss of a loved one at the hands of the police. 

“Playing ping pong”

“It’s murder — all day,” Angela Sullivan said, trying to stifle her sobs over the phone. “We’re going to get justice for Ronell. My soul is never going to rest until that happens.”

Sullivan is the aunt to the late Ronell Foster, who was shot and killed on Feb. 13, 2018, by former Vallejo Police Officer Ryan McMahon. Foster was 33 years old. 

Since then, the case has become bogged down in one legal controversy after another, illustrating the byzantine legal system that often frustrates those seeking justice and closure for their loved ones.

McMahon had attempted to stop Foster, who was riding his bicycle in downtown Vallejo, for a minor traffic violation and, he told investigators, to “educate” him about bicycle safety.

Police maintain that Foster, who was unarmed, fled on his bicycle, eventually ditching it to run down a pathway behind some buildings. At that point, McMahon said he got out of his police cruiser, pursuing Foster on foot. He also claimed that Foster reached for his waistband several times during the chase. In response, he shot Foster with a stun gun.

Foster continued to run until he fell along a walkway behind a building on Carolina Street, allowing McMahon to catch up and stun Foster again before the policeman started hitting him with his flashlight. McMahon alleges that Foster “forcibly removed” the flashlight from his hands; fearing for his safety, the officer pulled out his gun and fired.

The father of two was hit seven times in the side and back, including once in the back of the head, according to attorneys representing the Foster family. “He used three weapons on this kid. Ronell’s skull was in pieces,” Sullivan says. “It was just one man. I thought six or seven people had jumped Ronell.”

The police said McMahon’s actions were self-defense, and Solano County District Attorney Krishna Abrams agreed. In January 2020, her office declined to charge McMahon, saying he “was justified in using deadly force.”

However, the Police Department did determine that McMahon violated several police policies, including a failure to turn on his body-cam and to radio dispatch that he was chasing Foster. 

And a month after he was cleared of wrongdoing by Abrams, McMahon recorded a sworn deposition as part of a wrongful death lawsuit filed by the Foster family in which he concedes there were shortcomings in investigations by the police and the district attorney — and in which he revealed that he had no contact whatsoever with investigators from the district attorney’s office following the shooting. 

“They were there that night to investigate, but besides that, no,” McMahon said in the deposition.

This is not the first time Abrams has been accused of soft-pedaling investigations into police. Elected in 2014 on a platform of restoring the community’s trust in the district attorney’s office, Abrams has not charged a single Vallejo officer in connection with any fatal shooting.

“How come [Abrams] never finds a Vallejo police officer guilty of wrongdoing?” Sullivan asks. 

Despite Abrams’ unwillingness to press charges, the family filed a civil lawsuit that the city eventually settled, agreeing to a $5.7 million payout. McMahon, who was one of the six Vallejo police officers who shot and killed Willie McCoy, was officially fired in late September 2020 — for endangering his fellow officers during the McCoy shooting.

Vallejo Police Chief, Shawny Williams

Vallejo Police Chief Shawny Williams said McMahon’s actions “violated safety norms of firearms handling” when the officer began running toward McCoy’s car with his weapon extended as another officer was in his line of fire. 

In November, Sullivan joined a protest in downtown Fairfield to mark what would have been her nephew’s 36th birthday and to demand that Abrams’ office reopen the investigation into her nephew’s death after the release of McMahon’s deposition in October.

If the district attorney decides to take such a course, it likely won’t happen anytime soon. For much of the past year, Abrams recused herself from investigating the shootings of both Willie McCoy and Sean Monterrosa, saying that the community no longer had confidence in her impartiality. Along the way, she has engaged in a lengthy public spat with former California Attorney General Xavier Beccera over which agency should conduct the investigation.

Finally, after facing months of criticism — as well as the threat of a lawsuit by the city of Vallejo if Abrams didn’t “do her job” — the embattled district attorney appointed former San Bernardino County District Attorney Michael Anthony Ramos as special prosecutor to determine whether the six Vallejo police officers are criminally culpable for killing McCoy. 

In January, Ramos declined to bring charges against the officers, claiming they were “legally justified” when they shot and killed McCoy.

“Then when McCoy woke up, he posed a clear and immediate threat to the officers, and the officers faced with a life and death situation had seconds to decide how to stop the threat,” Ramos wrote in a 16-page report.

In his announcement, Bonta expressed frustration with Abrams, who he accused of once again shirking her responsibilities once the local authorities completed their investigation and presented the findings.

“Subsequently, the District Attorney, without invitation or notice, attempted to deliver the investigative file to the California Department of Justice,” Bonta added. “In effect, the District Attorney demanded that the Department assume the responsibilities she was elected to carry out, despite the fact that no known circumstances prevented her from discharging her duties.”

Kori McCoy says his family has a special phrase to describe the legal back-and-forth that plagues the local justice system. “We call it playing ping pong. To us, it confirms they know the officers are guilty, but they don’t want to prosecute their own.”

No justice, no peace

In September, Ashley and Michelle Monterrosa led dozens of supporters to the billboard of Sean Monterrosa near police headquarters. Standing over a train track, the crowd held a moment of silence.

The billboard’s location isn’t a coincidence. It is meant to serve as a reminder to officers and city officials in town. A second billboard was placed on Sonoma Boulevard, one of the city’s main traffic arteries, for a similar reason.

“You’ve turned your backs for so long — now it’s time you face what has happened,” says Ashley. “You’re not going to forget Sean.”

The billboard of Sean Monterrosa and a message ‘Justice for Sean Monterrosa’ near the Vallejo Police Department. (Harika Maddala/ Bay City News)

Funding for the billboards came from Vessels of Vallejo, a new community organization started by Louis Michael, a Vallejo resident who acted after the deaths of Sean Monterrosa and George Floyd.

“Nobody deserves to die like that,” says Michael, who ran an unsuccessful campaign for a City Council seat this past November. He added that the group signed a six-month contract to have the same image rotate on billboards throughout the city, ensuring all residents remember Monterrosa.

For their part, city officials seem open to police reform. On Oct. 6, the Vallejo City Council took the dramatic step of declaring a public safety state of emergency in order to speed through changes, including the hiring of two deputy police chiefs to supplement Williams’ depleted command staff.

Expanding the command structure is unpopular with the Vallejo Police Officers Association, which represents rank-and-file officers. 

“The VPOA is concerned for the financial health of the city,” says a spokesperson. “The hiring of two newly created and seemingly unnecessary deputy chief positions is being financed by not filling several much-needed police officer vacancies.”

During its August 25, 2020 meeting, the Vallejo City Council adjusted the budget to recognize a grant from the U.S. Department of Justice funding eight new officer positions within the Vallejo Police Department. The U.S. Department of Justice COPS Hiring Program awarded Vallejo with the grant, which totals $5,114,754 over a three-year period. In recognition of the grant funding, the Vallejo City Council amended the Fiscal Year 2020-21 General Fund budget for the Police Department to recognize $1,590,204 from the grant and appropriate expenditures of that amount. The $1,590,204 is intended to cover the eight new police officers’ salary and benefit costs for this fiscal year.

By the numbers:

VALLEJO:
Population – 121,692 (2019)
VPD sworn – Just over 100 (not including command staff)

OAKLAND:
Population – 433,031 (2019)
OPD sworn numbers – Over 700

SAN FRANCISCO:
Population – 881,549 (2019) 
SFPD sworn numbers – 2,208 (includes chief and command staff)

RICHMOND:
Population – 110,567 (2019)
RPD sworn – 145 (2018)

“Reform also looks like increased communication, collaboration and engagement with community partners, all of which we’ve made significant strides toward in the last year with the development of a new website and enhanced social media presence. In addition, reform is new technology that allows us to provide better customer service and solve more crimes,” said Jackson, spokeswoman for the Vallejo Police Department. 

But Vallejo Mayor Robert McConnell has indicated he will push for further reform during his time as mayor. He highlighted a need for officers to receive improved training, including on how to interact with the public. 

“Change is coming,” McConnell says. “Those reluctant to make change will have two choices: Go with the change or be unhappy.”

McConnell also says the city needs to find a way to reduce the number of civil lawsuits it is currently facing in federal court. 

Kori McCoy, for one, would gladly abandon his family’s civil lawsuit seeking compensation if the six officers who shot and killed his brother were prosecuted on criminal charges. He also stresses that the family is seeking federal oversight of the department as part of its lawsuit, calling it a starting point of reform.

“Anything less is insufficient,” he says.

Despite whatever setbacks they might face, the impacted families have no plans of standing down anytime soon. As for herself, Angela Sullivan is confident in one thing.

“We’re going to get justice for Ronell, we’re going to get justice for Willie, we’re going to get justice for … Sean,” she says. “We’re going to get justice for all of them — there is no stopping us.”


Lessons from Bay Area Police Reform; Looking at Past Practice, Future Potential in Vallejo

The San Francisco Bay Area is fertile ground to investigate the role of policing in diverse communities and police violence against Black and other people of color — and to learn what has worked to cut that violence while ensuring safety in these communities. With 8 million people, the Bay Area is a diverse region made up of separate jurisdictions that have different experiences with police reform efforts, some longer-standing (Oakland and Richmond), others more recent (San Francisco), and one just announced (Vallejo). With this as a backdrop, we applied a solutions journalism lens to evaluate four types of policing reforms that have been attempted, with mixed results, to achieve more public safety, more community trust, and less police violence.

Read the rest of the series:

This series was reported by John Glidden, edited by Dan Rosenheim and funded by Solutions Journalism Network.