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'Trust Has Been Broken': California DOJ Demands Vallejo Police Reforms, Citing Major Rights Violations

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A person in a suit speaks at a microphone in a room in front of a group of people and a sign reading "City of Vallejo."
California Attorney General Rob Bonta, addressing reporters at Vallejo City Hall on Oct. 16, 2023, where he announced a new effort to reform the embattled Vallejo Police Department. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

California Attorney General Rob Bonta is demanding major reforms of the beleaguered Vallejo Police Department, which has been subject to intense criticism in recent years over its high rate of police killings and very slow, and sometimes incomplete, investigations of those incidents.

Bonta’s Department of Justice on Monday filed a consent decree, which lays out the court-ordered police reforms the city of Vallejo must implement over the next five years.

“At its core, this new agreement is about building and strengthening trust between the Vallejo Police Department and the community it serves,” Bonta said at a press conference on Monday at Vallejo City Hall. “It’s about correcting injustices and enhancing public safety for all people in Vallejo.”

The consent decree comes more than three years after the state DOJ initiated a collaborative effort with the city to “review and reform” policing practices, arguing that “the number and nature of [police killings] raised concerns among members of the community.” Then-Attorney General Xavier Becerra announced that action in June 2020, just days after the high-profile police killing of Sean Monterrosa.

As part of its contract with the state, the city agreed to implement 45 reforms of the department. But when that agreement expired in June 2023, fewer than half of the recommendations had actually gone into effect, Bonta said.

The stipulated agreement that Bonta’s office filed in Solano Superior Court on Monday requires an independent auditor to monitor Vallejo’s progress on the outstanding reforms, under the supervision of the court, while also mandating additional changes to its police department. As part of that agreement, the department must address and rectify a slew of alleged shortcomings, including racial disparities in its policing practices, how it trains officers on de-escalation techniques and unlawful uses of force, and the manner in which it engages with the community.

The decree also requires that the city change the process of how it handles civilian complaints.

“This work and these reforms are more needed and more necessary,” Bonta said, announcing the action just days after a video was made public of a Vallejo officer punching a female driver in the face during an arrest. “Trust has been broken.”

Between 2010 and late 2020, Vallejo police officers killed 19 people, the second-highest rate among America’s 100 largest police forces.

The state DOJ is additionally expected to file a lawsuit in Solano County Superior Court alleging that Vallejo police officers have routinely violated the constitutional rights of the citizens they are sworn to protect, the local news site Open Vallejo reported Monday.

Bonta was joined on Monday by Vallejo Mayor Robert McConnell and the interim police chief, Jason Ta. Both said they would be cooperating with the state moving forward.

“Police reform consisting of a change in daily culture is not easy,” McConnell said. “As we make these changes, small and large, it will demand the full attention and understanding of the citizens of Vallejo.”

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Bonta also said his office is still looking into the June 2020 police killing of Monterrosa, even though Becerra, his predecessor,  declined to independently investigate the case.

In that incident, Vallejo police officer Jarrett Tonn, sitting in the back seat of an unmarked police vehicle, fired a semi-automatic rifle five times through the windshield, hitting Monterrosa once. The shooting took place as officers were responding to reports of a break-in at a Walgreens during the unrest following the murder of George Floyd.

Former Vallejo Police Chief Shawny Williams said at the time that Monterrosa, a 22-year-old Latino man from San Francisco, dropped to his knees and put his hands above his waist, revealing what Tonn thought was the butt of a handgun, but was actually a hammer in the pocket of his sweatshirt.

Williams fired Tonn after an independent investigation. But this summer, Tonn got his job back — with back pay — after an arbitrator ruled that the city didn’t follow proper procedure when firing him.

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The city has also faced criticism for its handling of investigations into numerous other police use-of-force cases, including “inadvertently” destroying records related to five shootings and taking so long to conduct investigations that, in some instances, officers killed other people while still under investigation for prior shootings.

In another high-profile incident, Vallejo police officer Zachary Jacobsen shot and killed Angel Ramos, 21, in his mother’s backyard in 2017, following a fight that broke out during a family gathering there. Responding to calls from neighbors about a disturbance, Jacobsen said he shot Ramos four times after witnessing him “hovering” above another man while making stabbing motions with a kitchen knife, according to the Solano County district attorney’s report on the incident.

But Ramos’ family disputed the police narrative of the shooting, insisting that he did not have a knife and was only punching the man. Ultimately, no knife was found near Ramos’ body. The family filed a wrongful death lawsuit, and last November reached a $2.8 million settlement with the city.

And in February 2019, another Vallejo police killing made national headlines when six officers fired 55 bullets at Willie McCoy, a 20-year-old Black man who had fallen asleep in his car in a Taco Bell parking lot and had just begun to stir as the officers yelled at him to raise his hands.

The following year, reporting from Open Vallejo revealed a years-long tradition among some Vallejo police officers of bending their badges to mark the fatal shootings they had made. Former police captain John Whitney told the media outlet that he was forced out of the department after raising concerns about the badge-bending tradition in the wake of McCoy’s death.

In a statement, civil rights attorney John Burris, who has sued Vallejo’s police department multiple times for its mistreatment of Black residents, commended Bonta and the city for reaching the consent degree. But he also cautioned that rank-and-file officers, and the police union that represents them, would likely stand in the way of any real reform.

“Make no mistake that this is just the beginning; it will take an [unwavering] commitment by city leaders and police leadership to implement the changes,” Burris said. “Change is hard, and the leadership must hold officers accountable; otherwise, the consent decree will not be worth the paper that it is written [on].”

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