Both the local district attorney’s office and the former California Attorney General’s Office refused to investigate the June 2020 police shooting.
(CN) — The California Attorney General’s Office will step in to investigate the fatal shooting of 22-year-old Sean Monterossa by Vallejo police who said the man had a gun tucked in his pocket.
Monterrosa was kneeling on the ground when an officer fired five rounds through his police cruiser striking the man in the head. The case has become a legal hot potato with both the Solano County District Attorney’s Office and former California Attorney General Xavier Becerra refusing to investigate.
On Thursday, California AG Rob Bonta said his office will conduct an independent investigation into the shooting and provide answers to Monterossa’s family and the community.
Bonta did not mince words with his announcement.
“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,” Bonta said in a statement. “Seeing the failure of the District Attorney to fulfill this important responsibility, my office will review the case to ensure a fair, thorough, and transparent process is completed. This is the right thing to do and I will go where the facts lead. Rebuilding trust in our institutions starts with the actions of each and every one of us. If there has been wrongdoing, we will bring it to light.”
Monterossa’s death sparked protests across the San Francisco Bay Area last summer with calls for a criminal investigation into the shooting. Body camera footage released several weeks after the shooting shows officers driving in an unmarked pickup truck responding to reports of looting at a Walgreens pharmacy store. Before the truck comes to a complete stop, an officer in the back seat fires five rounds from a rifle through the truck’s windshield.
Monterossa is not visible in the footage, but the officer who shot from inside the car, later identified as Jarret Tonn, gets out of the truck and asks another officer, “What did he point at us?”
“I don’t know man,” the other officer responds.
Tonn shouts, “Hey, he pointed a gun at us.”
There were no guns found at the scene, but police did find a hammer in Monterossa’s pocket. Fallout from the shooting unfolded shortly after George Floyd’s death. Calls for an independent investigation into the shooting were manifold, including Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and U.S. Rep. Mike Thompson. But Solano County DA Krishna Abrams recused herself from the investigation and on March 10, 2021 her office tried to deliver the investigative file to the California Department of Justice, according to Bonta’s office.
Abrams demanded the Department of Justice take over the investigation even though there were no known conflicts that would prevent her office from making the decision to bring charges against Tonn, Bonta’s office said. The DA’s office offered mixed signals according to the California AG’s office, as Abrams said her office would be able to offer a fair and objective evaluation of the case, but to this date has made no indication that there would be an investigation into the shooting.
Abrams called Bonta’s announcement “playing politics” with officer-involved shootings.
“It is beyond disappointing that we can’t trust the statements of the Attorney General,” Abrams said in a statement.
Abrams and Bonta spoke Thursday, according to her statement, where she asked if the Attorney General’s office would investigate the shooting. Abrams said the Department of Justice would not review the case due to limited funds.
“Within an hour of my telephone conference this morning with Mr. Bonta, he notified me that his department would be reviewing the case, completely reversing himself, and now suddenly blaming Solano County for failing to do its job by not reviewing the matter,” said Abrams.
She called Bonta’s position a misrepresentation of the work her office has done and over the past year the Attorney General’s office has “failed to listen to the will of the people.”
Abrams added, “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.”
A spokesperson from Bonta’s office said that Abram’s office should be reviewing the investigation because there is no real conflict. After hearing that Abram’s office still refused to conduct the review, Bonta said he would make a decision on his action later in the day.
County district attorneys are best positioned to handle these types of investigations, according to Bonta’s office. Starting on July 1, 2021, the California Department of Justice will be able to take over officer-involved shooting investigations of unarmed civilians. The California Attorney General’s office estimates it will handle up to 40 investigations each year when the law goes into effect.
Last June, Becerra announced his office would review the Vallejo Police Department due to its long history of fatal police shootings of unarmed people. While Becerra’s office said it would investigate the destruction of evidence by the city of Vallejo in relation to Monterossa’s death, the California Attorney General’s office at the time declined to broaden their investigation into the shooting.
California Governor Gavin Newsom appointed Bonta attorney general this past April.
Monterossa’s family filed a wrongful death lawsuit in federal court against the city of Vallejo and Tonn a few months after the shooting. The family argued Tonn was “trigger-happy” and involved in three previous shootings.
On Thursday, their attorney John Burris in a statement said he’s thankful that Bonta’s office has stepped in to review the shooting.
“The Vallejo police command staff knew or should have known that this was Tonn’s fourth shooting in five years and by failing to discipline officers for misconduct, Vallejo’s police command staff essentially ratified the bad conduct,” said Burris.