, June 24, 2022

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Review officer found termination ‘excessive’ for Vallejo officer who killed Sean Monterrosa

  •   5 min reads
Review officer found termination ‘excessive’ for Vallejo officer who killed Sean Monterrosa
Vallejo police Detective Jarrett Tonn. Photo: Vallejo Police Department.

VALLEJO – The proposed firing of Vallejo police Det. Jarrett Tonn for allegedly violating several policies during the killing of 22-year-old Sean Monterrosa in 2020 was found to be “excessive,” according to a report obtained and reviewed by the Vallejo Sun.

The findings came following a mandatory review hearing for public employees facing discipline called a “Skelly” hearing. Skelly officer Marc Fox overturned the findings that Tonn violated the use of force policy when he shot Monterrosa in the back of the head, killing him nearly instantly, on June 2, 2020.

Fox sustained Vallejo police’s findings that Tonn failed to activate his body camera and engaged in poor performance before shooting Monterrosa but found that those violations did not warrant termination.

Tonn “should receive corrective action which is the same or (substantially) similar to that received by other employees,” Fox wrote in his May 10 report. Two other officers present during the fatal shooting left the department before they were disciplined. A third received a letter of reprimand.

While the city can still technically proceed with the termination despite the Skelly officer’s findings, it would likely lose during arbitration. The city has refused to release the report pending a final decision by police Chief Shawny Williams and the Vallejo Sun sued the city this week to compel its release. The city, however, has yet to officially release the report while the Sun obtained it through other means.

Fox raised doubts about the department’s findings that Tonn had violated the use of force policies in part because of Williams’ statements in the days after the shooting justifying it, because Williams did not bring up the shooting at Tonn's performance evaluation later that year, and because Williams waited more than a year before placing Tonn on administrative leave.

Williams did not respond to a request for comment.

The day after the shooting, Williams wrote an email describing the incident, saying “upon arrival at 0036 hours, one of the responding officers broadcast that a subject, later identified as Sean Monterrosa, appeared to be armed. As Crime Reduction Team (CRT) detectives arrived in the log, they perceived a deadly threat.”

Williams’ statement provided a “tacit message” that the officers acted within policy because of an immediate threat, Fox found. Then, later that year, Williams did not bring up any concerns about the incident during Tonn’s performance evaluation.

The OIR Group, an outside firm hired to investigate the shooting, first interviewed Tonn on March 18, 2021. Tonn was not placed on administrative leave for another three months, on June 14, 2021.

The delay surprised Fox.

“From my professional human resources management experiences, this begs the question — if Officer Tonn's conduct was (potentially) so egregious that it would lead to dismissal from employment, why did the City/Police Department wait from June 2020 to June 2021 before Officer Tonn was placed on administrative leave,” Fox asked.

While Fox wrote that he had a “reasonable belief” that Tonn had acted based on a generalized fear and insufficient information, and violated the use of force policy, he did not think that the investigation had demonstrated requisite proof.

The shooting came during  a night of unrest in the city of Vallejo in response to the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, which Tonn told investigators put him “on edge.” Tonn — along with detectives Bretton Wagoner and Wesley Pittman — arrived at the Walgreens in an unmarked police truck as Monterrosa and others were fleeing from the store during widespread looting in the city.

The OIR Group found that Wagoner, who was driving, Pittman, who was riding in the front seat, and Capt. Lee Horton all violated department policies, including failing to de-escalate the situation and unsatisfactory work product.

Seconds before the shooting, Horton broadcast that the suspects were “possibly armed,” but Monterrosa, a carpenter, was found with a roofing hammer in his sweatshirt pocket.

After the shooting, Wagoner left the department to become a Napa County Sheriff’s deputy. Horton retired days before the announcement and Pittman was given a letter of reprimand. Only Tonn received a termination notice.

Fox also found that Tonn engaged in poor performance for failing to develop a plan with the other detectives and Horton before charging into the parking lot. Fox noted that Tonn and his attorney kept repeating the phrase “time, distance and cover” during the Skelly hearing, referring to the plan to engage the suspected looters in a felony traffic stop.

“It came across to the Skelly Officer as rehearsed and designed to convey the message that there was an agreed upon plan on how both police vehicles would intersect with the looters and how the police personnel would engage the looters,” Fox wrote.

Fox concluded that there was lack of planning prior to the fatal shooting, but he did not sustain findings that Tonn and the other officers had failed to de-escalate the situation.

“I would attribute this as both negligent and poor performance,” Fox wrote. “As the Police Chief makes a finding only of poor performance, so, I too, sustain a finding as to poor performance.”

But Fox  said he was unable to make a sustained determination that Tonn violated department policy by failing to de-escalate the situation prior to shooting.

“The lack of planning, in my judgment, is a reflection of Officer Tonn's poor performance and not a failure to engage in de-escalation,” Fox wrote.

Fox also rejected a conclusion that shooting Monterrosa was unreasonable because he was shot in the back of the head. Fox said Monterrosa could have been in motion attempting to move away from the bullets.

“As a lay person I think it would be reasonable to anticipate a person to make some bodily movement if a firearm is shot toward that person,” Fox wrote.

Tonn has yet to be officially named as the shooter. Days after the shooting, the Vallejo Police Officers’ Association (VPOA) obtained a temporary restraining order from the superior court blocking the city from officially naming Tonn as the shooter. That restraining order is still in effect. Multiple news outlets, including the Vallejo Sun, have confirmed Tonn as the shooter. Investigative files released about the shooting list Tonn as the “victim” in the case, which is common practice in police killings.

While the city has not decided whether to terminate Tonn, the findings of the Skelly officer make it unlikely the city will be able to prevent him from being reinstated. The city recently lost when another fired officer, Lt. Herman Robinson, challenged his termination in arbitration. Robinson had lost his Skelly hearing, but the arbitrator awarded him reinstated with back pay.

The city is also still reeling from other police scandals, most notably revelations that police officers bent the tips of their badges to mark on-duty shootings. The city has refused to release an outside investigator’s report on the practice. But during a recent hearing in criminal court, several officers testified that they had participated in the practice.

During those hearings, Solano County Deputy Public Defender Nick Filloy, who has reviewed portions of the report, said that former police Lt. Kent Tribble indicated that he thought he bent Tonn’s badge at some point.

It remains unclear which of Tonn’s three on-duty shootings before killing Monterrosa would have resulted in the bending of his badge.

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