SACRAMENTO, Calif. - Attorney General Rob Bonta is taking over the review into the Vallejo police shooting of Sean Monterrosa.
The 22-year-old was killed almost a year ago in the parking lot of a Walgreens after an officer opened fire through the windshield of a police cruiser because he allegedly thought a hammer in Monterrosa's pants was a gun.
In a press conference on Thursday, Bonta said that the young man's death needs a "fair and impartial review."
He said it was unfortunate that the Solano County District Attorney Krishna Abrams recused herself from the case, saying there was no reason to do so.
Abrams "unilaterally abdicated her responsibility as the elected district attorney and refused to conduct a review of the Vallejo Police Department’s investigation of the incident," Bonta said. "At a moment when building trust between law enforcement and the communities they serve is more important than ever, the District Attorney’s failure to act only serves to create more obfuscation and distrust in our justice system."
But he said his office is tired of "inaction" and that Monterrosa's family and the wider community need answers.
Bonta's predecessor, Xavier Becerra, declined to take the case, also saying at the time that Abrams should take it up.
In return, Abrams slammed Bonta and accused him of "playing politics."
Abrams said she spoke with Bonta just before his announcement Thursday morning.
"Mr. Bonta stated that his department would not be reviewing the case due to funding not being available until July 1st," she said. "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."
It was not immediately clear whose version of events was true.
And as of July 1, these DOJ investigations will be mandated.
Historically, officer-involved shootings in California have been primarily handled by the state's 58 district attorneys who are responsible for the jurisdictions where the incidents occurred.
But a new law, AB 1506, requires the California Department of Justice to take over investigations of officer-involved shootings of unarmed civilians across California. Based on historical averages, this will be roughly 40 cases a year.
The Monterrosa investigation is separate from the California Department of Justice’s ongoing civil review of the Vallejo Police Department’s policies and practices.
Monterrosa was fatally shot on June 2, 2020, by Vallejo police officer Jarrett Tonn, an 18-year veteran of the force.
At the time, Vallejo Police Chief Shawny Williams described Monterrosa as a potential looting suspect whom officers believed was carrying a firearm. Williams listed a criminal history that included charges of shoplifting, assault with deadly weapons, shooting into an inhabited dwelling and attempted murder.
However, when Tonn shot at him through the windshield of his unmarked pickup, Monterrosa was on his knees and had his hands above his waist.
The police later said Tonn shot him because he erroneously believed Monterrosa had a gun in his pocket. It turned out to be a hammer.
Monterrosa later died at a local hospital.
A month after the shooting, the Times Herald said Tonn was back at work.
The windshield, considered a key piece of evidence, was destroyed, leading city officials to seek a criminal investigation into how that happened.
Civil rights attorney John Burris, who is representing the Monterrosa family in a wrongful death suit, said in a statement Thursday, "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."
The City of Vallejo issued a statement welcoming Bonta's decision.
"We will cooperate with the Attorney General to make sure they have everything they need to conduct a thorough and independent review," Williams said.
The killing of Monterrosa sparked outrage in the Bay Area, particularly in Vallejo, which has a long history of police violence, excessive force complaints, and high-profile killings, including the February 2018 shooting of Ronnell Foster and the February 2019 shooting of Willie McCoy.
Criminal defense attorney and former prosecutor Michael Cardoza, a regular KTVU contributor, says the DA's Office, which works with and prosecutes many cases police bring to it was right to recuse because the relationship to police is too close.
"Everybody is going to question that and say, 'You're in bed with these people. How can you prosecute them?'"
Cardoza added that the Attorney General does not have that conflict and has "much more money than the county to investigate this, so, all in all, I think it's a very good thing."
Bonta added that no matter what his office finds, which will be difficult as the investigation is being launched almost a year later, nothing will bring Monterrosa back.
"He is gone forever," Bonta said.
But Bonta said transparency is desperately needed.
"Without accountability, there is no justice," Bonta said. "It’s past time Sean Monterrosa’s family, the community, and the people of Vallejo get some answers. If there has been wrongdoing, we will bring it to light."
KTVU reporter Tom Vacar contributed to this report.