, June 24, 2022

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Vallejo Sun sues city to compel release of Skelly materials in Monterrosa shooting

  •   3 min reads
Vallejo Sun sues city to compel release of Skelly materials in Monterrosa shooting
The Vallejo Sun.

VALLEJO – The Vallejo Sun filed a complaint in Solano County Superior Court this week demanding that the city of Vallejo immediately release Skelly materials related to the June 2020 police shooting of Sean Monterrosa outside a Walgreens.

The Vallejo Police Department and Police Chief Shawny Williams are also named as defendants in the lawsuit.

In the lawsuit, the Vallejo Sun alleges the city is illegally withholding records from a Skelly hearing associated with the officer who shot and killed Monterrosa outside during the early morning hours of June 2, 2020.

Jarrett Tonn, who is only identified as the “shooting officer” in the Sun’s complaint, fired five shots from his high-powered rifle while seated in the backseat of an unmarked Vallejo police pickup truck. Monterrosa was struck once in the back of the head while he was on at least one knee near the side of the Walgreens. Monterrosa died at the scene.

Days after the shooting, the Vallejo Police Officers’ Association (VPOA) filed a temporary restraining order with 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.

Williams moved to fire Tonn last December for violating the department’s use of force policy and for failing to de-escalate the situation before he and two other officers drove into the Walgreens parking lot while responding to reports of looting at the store.

The Vallejo Sun reported on May 27 that during a mid-April Skelly hearing, a mandatory review hearing for law enforcement officers facing discipline, Tonn's use of force violations and termination were overturned by the Skelly officer, setting the stage for Tonn’s possible return to the police department.

The Sun then filed a public records request with the city seeking Tonn’s Skelly materials. But the city denied that request, invoking the “catchall” exemption under the California Public Records Act, which shields disclosure of records where the public interest in non-disclosure of the records clearly outweighs the public interest in disclosure.

The city has argued that the public interest is not in disclosure because the city has not made a final decision whether it will proceed with the termination, despite the Skelly officer’s recommendation. The Vallejo Sun disagrees.

The Sun argues the application of that exemption is improper and is demanding that the city comply with S.B. 1421, which requires law enforcement agencies to produce investigative records related to officers’ use of force, acts of dishonesty, and sustained findings of sexual assault. Those records also include Skelly materials.

“The law specifically requires disclosure of Skelly materials, and mandates specific timeframes for disclosure where disclosure may interfere with a parallel criminal or administrative investigation,” the lawsuit states. “In no case may disclosure be delayed beyond 180 days where there is a parallel administrative investigation, as is the case here.”

The Sun points to the fact that the city has already released several internal investigative files related to the Monterrosa shooting. Those records include the notice of intent to terminate Tonn, and a 66-page independent investigation into the shooting.

The Sun also argues that “public interest in disclosure is also weighty.” Vallejo police have a significantly higher rate of police shootings than other similarly-sized cities, killing 19 people since 2010.

In addition, the department is currently embroiled in a scandal after a former Vallejo police lieutenant testified in Solano County Superior Court last March that he brought badge bending to the department in 2003.

“S.B. 1421 was specifically enacted to lift the veil of secrecy on police departments’ internal investigation of officers involved in fatal encounters with civilians,” the Sun argues.  

The Sun is represented by Berkeley-based attorney Sam Ferguson, who negotiated a settlement in a class-action lawsuit filed by several journalists last year, demanding the city of Oakland comply with California Public Records Act. That lawsuit’s plaintiffs included Vallejo Sun co-founders Scott Morris and Brian Krans, along with fellow journalist Sarah Belle Lin, the watchdog group Oakland Privacy and its research director Michael Katz. Ferguson and the rest of the legal team were awarded a James Madison Freedom of Information Award by the Northern California Society of Professional Journalists for their work on the lawsuit.

The Vallejo Sun was started by Morris, Krans, and Vallejo-based journalist John Glidden in September 2021.

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