Inside One of America’s Deadliest Police Departments

VALLEJO, CALIFORNIA — At just 22 years old, Sean Monterrosa was shot and killed with a silenced assault rifle, fired from the back of an unmarked police car. That made him the 33rd person killed by the Vallejo, California, police department since 2000. 

When police responded to reports of a looting at a local Walgreens in June 2020, Monterrosa was still in the parking lot. He got down on his knees and put his arms above his head, as unmarked police vehicles approached him. 

But one of the officers on the scene, Det. Jarrett Tonn, says he mistook a hammer in Monterrosa’s waistband for a gun. He fired five rounds from the back seat of the vehicle he was in, one of which hit Monterrosa in the back of his head. 

“It looked like combat footage from Afghanistan,” said John Coyle, an attorney representing the Monterrosa family, referring to body camera footage of the incident. 

The Vallejo Police Department, which serves a city of about 125,000 in northern California, has killed more people per arrest than 97% of departments, according to the city’s Police Scorecard, which compares the department to those that serve a similar population size. And at its peak, the Vallejo PD’s rate of officer-involved shootings that resulted in deaths was about 38 times the national rate, according to an analysis from local news site KQED. The frequent killings have caused members of the community to lose faith in the department and even question whether they want to call the cops at all.  

“There’s been no accountability for the Vallejo Police Department. The relationship those neighborhoods and the people who live in them have with the Vallejo Police Department is terrible. It is a relationship of fear and hypervigilance and aggression,” said Nick Filloy, a public defender in Solano County since 2006 who has represented Vallejo residents in cases against the police. “Calling the cops is a last resort.”

In Monterrosa’s case, an independent, third-party report concluded the cops made “no effort to use time, distance, or cover” and “no effort to take time to plan.” In fact, the report noted, “they intentionally drove closer.” 

“What would it look like if they had just stopped the car, jumped out and said, ‘Oh, get on your knees. Hands behind your head,’” Ashley Monterrosa, Sean’s sister, told VICE News. 

The family of Sean Monterrosa is now suing the city of Vallejo—not just for monetary compensation, they say, but to catalyze change within the department. The Monterrosa sisters have also gone further into activism. They supported a bill that passed cracking down on police misconduct, and advocated at the capitol in California for a bill that would expand resources to victims of police violence.

“When my parents came to San Francisco from Argentina, they sacrificed so much for us to come here. It hurts to hear my mom when she cries about coming here and knowing that you still live in a place where the state basically murdered your only son,” said Michelle Monterrosa, another one of Sean Monterrosa’s sisters.

“It hurts to hear my mom when she cries about coming here and knowing that you still live in a place where the state basically murdered your only son.”

Tonn is alleged to be part of a group of officers at the Vallejo police department who had their badges bent after being involved in a shooting. The practice is believed to have ended in the year before Monterrosa’s death, but Tonn was involved in three previous shootings. The practice was revealed in July 2020, after an investigation by Open Vallejo. The Vallejo Police Officers’ Association claimed, in a letter obtained by the Vallejo Times-Herald, that the practice was not meant to mark each killing but rather to honor an officer surviving a shooting, regardless of whether it was fatal.

“My sergeant, after my first officer-involved shooting, said wouldn’t it be nice if you could look around and see a visual indicator of people you can trust in a moment of chaos? And then he took my badge, and he bent it,” Joshua Coleman, a former officer who worked at the department for ten years, told VICE News. 

The death of a Vallejo officer on duty in November 2011, James Capoot, was a major blow to the department’s morale, which had already been low due to the department going bankrupt in 2008, leading to the size of its police force being cut in half. Since then, the department has struggled to hire officers to fill its vacancies. The city also has more than double the national violent crime rate—in 2019, there were 845 violent crimes per 100,000 people in Vallejo. 

“The focus is police shootings, but particularly police shootings of people of color, that this is an epidemic that is out of control. When are we going to focus on what is going on in our communities who are raised to believe that it’s normal for your family members to get murdered and it’s normal to carry a firearm, and it’s normal to have an adversarial relationship with the police?”

To help officers cope in the wake of a shooting, former Lt. Kent Tribble, a use-of-force expert and training instructor at the department, started the badge-bending practice in 2003. During his 18 years on the force, multiple lawsuits alleging police brutality were filed against him. Coleman claims that Tribble was the one who bent his badge.

“What I needed was validation. And in that moment, after that shooting, I felt validated,” Coleman said.

“What I needed was validation. And in that moment, after that shooting, I felt validated.”

But not everyone views the practice as positive. After growing criticism, the Vallejo police chief launched an independent third-party investigation into the practice of badge-bending in July 2020. And even though it was completed in mid-September 2021, its findings haven’t been released.

“It was a status that people wanted to earn. And it was a way in which to prove oneself. Recognitions of that nature create incentives and they normalize conduct,” Filloy said of the practice. 

Still, the Monterrosa sisters are hopeful, particularly because no one has been killed by the department since Monterrosa.

“This is the longest time period that the Vallejo police department hasn’t murdered somebody. We literally stopped that killing spree,” Michelle said. 

“We’re going to be the last family affected by the Vallejo police department, and we really hope to achieve that,” Ashley said.

Lena Jakobsson contributed to the production of this video.

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