For years civil rights attorney John Burris has been trying to get the California Attorney General’s office to investigate the Vallejo Police Department—which has seen an unusually large number of officer-involved shootings in recent years. It took another egregious shooting on Tuesday, involving 22-year-old Sean Monterossa, and the fallout of George Floyd’s death to finally spawn action.
On Friday, AG Xavier Becerra, the City of Vallejo, and the Vallejo Police Department agreed to collaborate on a comprehensive policing plan in an effort to modernize and reform VPD’s policies and practices and increase public trust.
According to the announcement, “The review will aim to support effective policing through improvements in use-of-force procedures, anti-bias and community policing, and accountability by focusing on training, policy, and transparency in alignment with national standards, best practices, current and emerging research and community expectations.”
“Our communities are safer when our police departments can build public trust through good policies, practices, and training. This review and reform agreement we announce today with the City of Vallejo represents a critical step the Vallejo Police Department must take to build trust with people who have lost faith in them,” said Attorney General Becerra.
Police say they believed Sean Monterrosa had a gun, but instead it was a hammer—and the police chief acknowledged he had knelt and raised his hands to chest level. But the action revealed a hammer tucked into his sweatshirt pocket and the officer assumed it was the butt of a handgun and opened fire through his own windshield.
John Burris, who has been retained by the Shawn Monterossa’s family, said he disputed that Monterossa posed a threat. “It’s a pretty outrageous shooting,” Burris said Wednesday. “The officer’s life was not in danger.”
Burris said that he believes Monterossa was in the process of surrendering and that “there was a reckless disregard for this kid’s life because there was tension in the air.
“It appears that Shawn Monterossa had essentially surrendered,” Burris said. “He went down voluntarily to his knees and was in the process of putting his hands up when the officer saw what he said appeared to be a gun and shot him. The officer was not out of the car, Shawn was not chasing him, not threatening him.
“Looting is not a justification for the use of deadly force,” he added. “It’s just property.”
John Burris told the Vanguard that this is “an historical moment,” which he said, “is brought about by the consequence of what has taken place.
“I have been dealing with this AG’s office now for several years trying to get them to focus in on Vallejo… and no response,” he said.
But “another shooting takes place” and “for whatever reason they decided this was the time to get involved” and, while he realizes it is political, “nevertheless it is important that the move has taken place.”
Burris said he was not sure specifically what this entails other than it “is an expansive review of department practices,” where they will be looking for “any pattern or practice of unconstitutional violations.
“That’s a broad term but that’s the language we use when we look at pattern and practice cases,” he said, where they look to see if there is any ratification of misconduct, whether or not the use of force is consistently within the constitution, whether traffic stops are handled consistently, and whether the department’s policies are up to date.
The “pattern and practice” is the term of art for the US Department of Justice’s chief tool for accomplishing police reform—determining whether the department in engaging in a systemic violations of the constitution in their policing with regard to use of force, traffic stops and other police misconduct.
But under the Trump administration, they ended federal consent decrees and stopped many of their pattern and practice investigations a few years ago.
“The feds are not looking at these cases,” Burris said. “We had cases pending that they were looking at and they just dropped it completely.
“This is certainly an example of filling a void that typically would go to the feds,” he said. “The AG’s office is not the place looking to determine pattern and practice for the most part.”
He believes that they probably lack the expertise in house and will probably have to go to an outside consultant to do this work.
“I don’t think they have the skill that’s required,” he said.
In their release, the AG’s office indicated that the agreement “comes in light of several recent high-profile VPD officer-involved shootings.”
They note: “The number and nature of the incidents raised concerns among members of the community and the California Department of Justice (Cal DOJ).”
Attorney General Becerra said, “When our communities speak up, we must listen—and, in recent days, people across California and the nation, and in Vallejo have bravely come together to make their voices heard. This is only a first step in our broader fight for racial justice. We must all do our part, and we must do it now.”
“I have long stated that we know not all the best ideas are in Vallejo, and our Council welcomes the involvement of the California Department of Justice in helping us implement better police practices in Vallejo,” said Vallejo City Manager Greg Nyhoff.
He added, “Our officers share our Council’s mission to keep our community safe and reflect the best of policing. We believe that collaboration with the DOJ and implementation of the suggestions from our recently completed external audits are an important step for everyone.”
“The City of Vallejo had launched a series of reform projects before I arrived in Vallejo that evidenced their desire to improve. It is one reason I was attracted to the role of Chief,” said Vallejo Chief of Police Shawny Williams.
He continued, “As Chief, I have already implemented a stronger body-worn camera policy, an improved de-escalation policy, and a program to regularly analyze use-of-force data, but the biggest steps are ahead of us. I welcome all voices to the table. We are stronger together.”
Senator Bill Dodd appreciates the AG’s office reviewing the Vallejo Police.
He said, “From use of force, to elimination of bias and improving training, it’s critical that we have an outside review.”
Senator Dodd added: “That’s a positive step, but there’s much more we need to do. This week, there was yet another fatal police shooting in Vallejo—another tragic loss of life. My thoughts are with Sean Monterrosa’s loved ones. They, and the Vallejo community, deserve a clear understanding of the events that led to this shooting, which is why I am calling for an independent investigation. Justice must be served. We have seen too many families grieving senseless killings of African Americans and people of color by law enforcement. This must stop.”
—David M. Greenwald reporting
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