Families of Californians Killed by Police Push Bill To Strip Badges From Bad Officers

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Michelle (right) and Ashley Monterrosa speak during a protest on July 11, 2020, calling for justice for their brother Sean and others killed by Vallejo police officers. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Growing up in San Francisco, Michelle Monterrosa remembers attending protests against police brutality with her brother, Sean.

The names of people like Oscar Grant, Mario Woods and Alex Nieto — all young men of color killed by Bay Area police officers — were burned into her memory.

But years later, she said, “This fight became personal when our brother was murdered.”

On June 2, 2020, just days after the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Sean Monterrosa was fatally shot by Vallejo Police Officer Jarrett Tonn, who fired at the kneeling 22-year-old through the windshield of an unmarked police pickup truck in a Walgreens parking lot.

Monterrosa's family later found out that Tonn had been involved in three other shooting incidents since 2015. The Solano County District Attorney's Office declined to bring charges against the officer. Recently, however, newly appointed California Attorney General Rob Bonta announced the state’s Department of Justice would conduct its own investigation into the shooting.

But most criminal investigations move at a snail’s pace, and so families of people who have been killed by police are now pursuing another path toward justice. Senate Bill 2, introduced late last year,  would bar police officers convicted of serious misconduct from being rehired by other departments or agencies — essentially stripping badges from bad officers.

Advocates argue the bill's premise is hardly outlandish: In California, doctors, lawyers and even barbers can lose their professional licenses for certain major violations. But there’s currently no equivalent recourse for police.

“We need to build a pathway where we can remove dangerous police officers from our communities,” said Michelle Monterrosa. “Because at the end of the day, our loved ones are unfortunately just counting down the days until they become the next hashtag. So this bill is long overdue.”

State Sen. Steven Bradford, D-Gardena, who introduced SB 2, wrote a similar bill last year that didn’t make it out of the state Assembly; it was one of several state police reform bills that died over the summer, even as the nation was rocked by racial justice protests sparked by Floyd's murder.

California is one of just four states that does not have any process to decertify police officers, allowing some officers convicted of serious misconduct to leave their departments and be rehired at other law enforcement agencies. Sometimes officers simply resign in the middle of their internal investigations, then apply for another job in a different jurisdiction.

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Police unions and other law enforcement groups say they support the concept of a decertifying process but strongly object to several details in SB 2.

One area in the bill they’ve zeroed in on is the proposed advisory board, which would consist of nine members: seven civilians and two law enforcement representatives. The board would review investigations and make recommendations to a state-run governing body — the existing Commission on Peace Officer Standards Training (POST) — on whether to decertify a police officer.

Among the seven civilians on the proposed board, two would be people who have either experienced police misconduct or have family members that have been killed by police, and the other five would come from organizations that deal with police misconduct.

Brian Marvel, president of the Peace Officers Research Association of California (PORAC), which represents more than 77,000 law enforcement professionals in the state, said a board with that makeup will not be fair or equitable and cannot offer real due process to the officers under scrutiny.

“I can guarantee you that there's probably no license or program in the entire United States where two-thirds of the people that sit on that panel are predisposed to be against the person coming before them,” Marvel said.

But supporters of the legislation note that the advisory board would be just one step in a multilayer process.

Ultimately POST would define what actions constitute serious misconduct and have the final say on officer decertification. Officers would also have an opportunity to appeal any decision.

Lizzie Buchen, a lobbyist advocating for SB 2 on behalf of the American Civil Liberties Union, said civilian oversight is necessary because the public has lost faith in law enforcement's ability to fully police themselves.

“We think that with law enforcement really dominating this whole process, it's really important that we have that one layer that is mostly civilians,’’ Buchen said. “To ensure that they have an opportunity to have a say in the process as well.”

Law enforcement groups successfully removed another provision of the bill they objected to, which would have made it easier for the public to sue police officers who commit misconduct while on duty. Marvel and others argued the provision would open up not only police officers but also taxpayers to enormous liability.

In order to get enough support to move the bill out of the state Senate Appropriations Committee, Bradford agreed last week to drop the provision and keep police officers protected from most civil lawsuits.

“While the amendments we negotiated are difficult to accept, compromise requires us to work together and find common ground in pursuit of the best policy for Californians," Bradford said in a statement after the changes were made public.

The bill will now have to clear the state Senate by June 4, before heading to the Assembly for consideration.

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The intense disagreements over the bill’s details show that even in a state known for being politically progressive — and even in the wake of last summer’s uprisings against racism and police brutality — getting lawmakers to embrace wholesale police reform remains politically challenging.

Yet, after years of law enforcement groups exercising outsized power in Sacramento, things do seem to be shifting politically, said Buchen, the ACLU lobbyist.

“Their grip on the Legislature, which used to be iron-fisted, has really loosened,” she said. “We're seeing, increasingly, members of the Legislature declare that they're not going to accept contributions from law enforcement, their campaign contributions are becoming toxic. People don't want to be seen as being in the pocket of law enforcement unions.”

Though advocates consider SB 2 to be the most significant California police reform proposal this year, lawmakers are also considering a host of other bills that would, among other things, require police officers to intervene if they see their colleagues using excessive force; have community-based organizations more frequently respond to certain 911 calls; and a crackdown on officers making false reports.

For many family members of those killed by police, it’s a fight worth undertaking, one that activists like Michelle Monterrosa say they’re doing not only for their lost loved ones, but also for other families who have experienced police violence.

“If I don't do it, who will?” she said. “SB 2 can have a ripple effect into many new legislations and bills to come after it. And I really hope that here in California, we do see more accountability.”

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