California city under review after police brutality and fatal shooting complaints

Erik Ortiz

The California Department of Justice will undertake an "expansive review" of the police department in the Bay Area city of Vallejo, state Attorney General Xavier Becerra announced Friday, after a spate of police shootings and excessive force complaints have led to protests, accusations of biased policing, lawsuits and residents' demands for an outside investigation.

The latest shooting occurred after midnight Tuesday, when authorities say an officer fired five times through a windshield, fatally hitting Sean Monterrosa, 22, of San Francisco. Police were responding to a report of a looting at a Walgreens, and the officer said he believed Monterossa had a gun and that he was kneeling "in preparation to shoot." Monterrosa was stopped and crouched down in a half-kneeling position facing officers, police said, and it was later discovered he had a hammer in his sweatshirt pocket.

The officer who fired the weapon was not immediately identified, but Vallejo police said that officer was placed on leave. The department and the Solano County District Attorney opened an investigation.

The fatal shooting was the first involving Vallejo police in 2020, and comes after six officers opened fire in February 2019, killing a young rapper name Willie McCoy, who was found unresponsive behind the wheel of his car at a fast-food drive-thru. At the time, it was the 16th death involving Vallejo officers since 2011, police records show.

Becerra said the review is part of an agreement with the city of Vallejo, which has a population of about 122,000 people, and the police department with a goal of reforming police policies and practices and increasing public trust.

"Our communities are safer when our police departments can build public trust through good policies, practices, and training," Becerra said in a statement. "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."

He said the agreement will go into effect for three years and is expected to be ratified Tuesday at the Vallejo City Council meeting.

The announcement comes amid a heightened call for police reform nationally following the death of George Floyd, a black man, in Minneapolis police custody on May 25.

The Vallejo Police Department has faced accusations of racism because the majority of those killed by police have been black and Latino men, police records show. The city remains evenly divided among white, black, Latino and Asian residents.

While investigations by the local district attorney have been opened, no officers have been charged with a crime in connection to a fatal shooting or police brutality complaint in recent years.

A year ago, the city invited the U.S. Department of Justice's Community Relations Service to take part in conversation with residents on how to repair relations with the police. It's unclear if those meetings ever took place.

In 2004, the last time the Community Relations Service assisted in Vallejo, there was a list of requests, including cultural and sensitivity training for officers, youth outreach, a whistleblower program and having a dedicated person in the department act as a liaison for the family of people killed in police-involved incidents. While some of those requests were implemented, residents told NBC News last year that others fell by the wayside — and allowed for the current divisions to crystallize.

The city last summer hired an outside firm to do an independent review of the police department.

Vallejo City Manager Greg Nyhoff said Friday that the new "collaboration with the DOJ and implementation of the suggestions from our recently completed external audits are an important step for everyone."

Vallejo Police Chief Shawny Williams, who was brought on last fall and is the city's first black police chief, added that while he's strengthened implementation of a bodyworn camera policy and deescalation techniques, "the biggest steps are ahead of us."

Melissa Nold, an attorney whose firm has represented several families whose loved ones have died at the hands of Vallejo police, said she's thankful that Becerra is throwing the weight of his office behind reform.

"Vallejo police have been getting away with murder for decades," Nold said. "I want to make sure to recognize the families of Angel Ramos, Ronell Foster and Willie McCoy, who have been loudly advocating for an outside investigation for years."

The officer in Ramos' 2017 death was cleared of wrongdoing last year, while the officer in Foster's 2018 death was cleared in January. The investigation continues into McCoy's death.