By David M. Greenwald
Fairfield, CA – It took less than a month for newly-appointed California AG Rob Bonta to make his presence felt. One of our ongoing concerns with his predecessors Xavier Becerra and now-Vice President Kamala Harris was the failure to crack down on police shootings.
It was last year right after the death of George Floyd that we saw a real contrast between California AG Becerra—who would end up punting on the investigation into the shooting of Sean Monterrosa, despite the lack of action by the local DA—and Minnesota AG Keith Ellison, who took over the investigation and ultimate prosecution and conviction of Derek Chauvin as the local DA dragged his feet.
In one of his first acts, AG Rob Bonta, who just took office last week, has now announced his office will conduct a full independent review of the officer-involved shooting death of Sean Monterrosa to determine whether criminal charges are warranted.
The AG was critical of the DA’s office in Solano County, noting, “What has happened is there has been inaction.” He said, “This case deserves action.
“It is unfortunate that to this point, the Solano County District Attorney has not acted,” he said. “The Solano County DA has recused herself when there was no basis to do so. There was no actual conflict under the law.
“She has repeatedly said that she can be impartial, thorough and fair,” he said, noting that she should have taken on the case and that he said that to her personally.
“Given the failure of the Solano County DA to fulfill her responsibility, we will review the case to ensure a fair, thorough, and transparent investigation,” Bonta said during the press conference.
In a statement released by his office, it noted, “At a moment when building trust between law enforcement and the communities they serve is more important than ever, the District Attorney’s failure to act only serves to create more obfuscation and distrust in our justice system. Monterrosa was fatally shot by a Vallejo Police Department officer on June 2, 2020.
“Without accountability, there is no justice,” said Bonta.
It is unfortunate, but Solano County DA Krishna Abrams doesn’t get it—even now.
She fired back this week, accusing the AG of “[p]laying politics with one of the most critical and divisive issues in our communities today—officer involved fatalities.
“It is beyond disappointing that we can’t trust the statement of the Attorney General,” she said.
While it is hard to know who is right about how the conversation went down, I’m more concerned with what happened with regard to the investigation into the death of Sean Monterrosa.
The family along with John Burris maintain that Sean Monterrosa had “essentially surrendered,” going down voluntarily on his knees and was in the process of putting his hands up. It was at this point the officer saw what he thought was a gun and shot him even though the officer was not out of his car.
The reason I tend to believe Bonta is that in Abrams’ comments, at no point did she actually state that her office had conducted the investigation. Instead her language is aimed at objecting to be calling out and criticizing the AG’s office for not taking over the case sooner.
The problem is that she has had just about a year to investigate this case—and in her statements this week, she gave absolutely no indication that she has done so.
Instead, she accused the AG’s office that it “has failed to act over the past year and has failed to listen to the will of the People.
“Having been on the job for less than one month, it is of significant concern that Attorney General Bonta would criticize our office for wanting to ensure that the people of Solano County have complete confidence in the integrity of the investigation,” she said. “In every case, we seek a full, fair, independent and unbiased investigation for all parties, and that a fair, unbiased, independent and objective decision is made.”
But the AG’s office under Becerra made it clear that, while he understands and appreciates the concern expressed in their letter, the role of the AG’s office “in intervening in a local criminal investigation and prosecution is limited.”
He wrote, “California’s 58 district attorneys are charged with investigating and prosecuting criminal cases as the elected public prosecutors for each of our counties.”
He went on to say, “Absent a conflict of interest, abuse of discretion or other exceptional circumstances, the Department of Justice generally does not assume responsibility for investigations or prosecutions of officer involved shootings.”
The letter concluded that DA Abrams “has publicly stated that she is confident that her office can conduct a fair and thorough review of any officer involved shooting, and she has not identified a conflict of interest or any other extraordinary circumstances that would require our office to assume the responsibilities of the District Attorney’s office.”
And that’s what Bonta said. This means that, since July 27, the Solano County DA has been directed by the AG’s office to conduct the investigation and has not done so—by her own omission.
Based on that, it appears that Bonta is correct and, while I might have taken a different approach, he has the facts on his side here. Krishna Abrams was directed by the AG to conduct the investigation, and, by all appearances, she has not. That’s unforgivable.
I think the AG’s office should have taken over this case much sooner. I was critical of Becerra last year for not doing exactly that. This case screamed for getting the issue out of Solano County and, fortunately under Bonta, that will happen and hopefully we will get to the bottom of why Sean Monterrosa was killed that night.
This was not a good shooting. Monterrosa was unarmed. He had a hammer. The officer involved had been involved in previous use-of-force complaints and shootings.
The AG’s office noted that, historically, such shootings are handled by the local DA’s offices which “are largely resourced by and responsible to the jurisdictions where the incidents occurred, as should have been the case with the investigation into the shooting of Sean Monterrosa in Solano County.”
However, as a result of Assembly Bill 1506, which goes into effect on July 1, 2021, the DOJ “will soon have an important new tool to directly help build and maintain trust between law enforcement and the communities they serve by taking over investigations of officer-involved shootings of unarmed civilians across California.”
Bonta noted that this case does not fall under AB 1506, as it preceded its implementation.
The law is therefore strengthened for the future and Bonta is not going to shirk away from prosecuting these cases, just as Ellison didn’t in Minnesota. That’s a big change and this is just the beginning.
—David M. Greenwald reporting
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