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Police Fatally Shot A Man Who Was Kneeling After Mistaking A Hammer In His Pocket For A Gun

“Looting is not a justification for the use of deadly force. It’s just property," a lawyer for the family said.

Last updated on June 4, 2020, at 2:51 p.m. ET

Posted on June 4, 2020, at 12:12 p.m. ET

GoFundMe / Via gofundme.com

A 22-year-old was shot and killed by police on Tuesday after officers who were responding to reports of looting mistook a hammer in the man's pocket for a gun.

The victim, Sean Monterrosa, was kneeling when he was fatally shot outside a Walgreens in Vallejo, California, police said.

An officer fired five shots at the victim through the windshield of an unmarked police car, striking him once.

The shooting came amid protests nationwide over the death of George Floyd, a black man who was killed after a Minneapolis police officer put him in a knee chokehold as he repeatedly said, "I can't breathe."

According to Vallejo Police Department Chief Shawny Williams, officers had been responding to “a variety of riot-related calls for service” in the night leading up to the fatal shooting.

Just after midnight on Tuesday, officers responded to a call that looters were attempting to break into a Walgreens pharmacy, Williams said. When officers arrived on the scene, they "saw 10 to 12 potential looters in the parking lot."

When the officers arrived, the individuals fled in two cars, a black sedan and a silver pickup truck. The truck rammed into one of the police cars, causing the airbag to be deployed and injuring the officer, Williams said.

Two officers in another police car, which was unmarked, reported seeing a "male dressed in black” trying to get to the black sedan before he stopped and kneeled.

“This individual appeared to be running towards the black sedan, but suddenly stopped, taking a kneeling position and placing his hands above his waist, revealing what appeared to be the butt of a handgun," Williams said.

Upon later investigation, it turned out to be "a long, 15-inch hammer tucked into the pocket of his sweatshirt," Williams said.

"Due to this perceived threat, one officer fired his weapon five times from within the police vehicle, through the windshield, striking the suspect once, fatally wounding the suspect," he said.

Monterrosa was brought to the hospital, where he died.

The officer has been placed on paid administrative leave. Williams declined to name him but said he has worked as a police officer for 18 years.

Williams said the victim had a history of run-ins with the law, including theft, gun, and drug charges.

John Burris, a civil rights attorney working with the man's family, told BuzzFeed News was unaware of Monterrosa previously being convicted of any crimes.

While Burris said he was "not condoning" any unlawful activities Monterrosa may have been involved in that night, he added that there was "no evidence" to prove he was looting.

"But looting, in and of itself, is not something that deserves a death warrant," Burris said. "You don’t get to shoot and kill someone because they’re looting, particularly if you didn’t see them looting."

"In order to kill someone," Burris continued, "You have to have more than stealing property — you have to have your life, your individual life, in danger, or a danger to someone else’s life."

Burris called the officer's decision to shoot an "unlawful, wrongful, excessive use of force," particularly because Monterrosa had been on his knees "as if to surrender."

Monterrosa was from San Francisco, a cement mason who was studying to become a carpenter. His family was close-knit, and he was the middle brother to two sisters. His parents are immigrants from Argentina, Burris said, clarifying comments he previously gave to the Los Angeles Times.

A GoFundMe set up by a family friend described him as a "wonderful son, brother, friend who touched the lives of those around him."

"He was loyal, hard working, and had a heart of gold. He was truly one of a kind," the GoFundMe organizer wrote.

The Vallejo Police Department has a history of questionable shootings and other excessive force incidents. Since 2011, at least 18 fatal police encounters have taken place in Vallejo, an industrial suburb of around 120,000 people located 30 miles northeast of San Francisco — one of the highest per capita rates of officer-caused deaths in the state. Since then, no Vallejo officer has been disciplined for use of deadly force.

In 2012, six of the 20 homicides in the city were carried out by police officers — three by a single person, Officer Sean Kenney, who fatally shot three people in separate incidents within a five-month span. In one case, he shot Anton Barrett, a 42-year-old black man, because, Kenney claimed, he mistook his cellphone for a gun. In another, he and his partner, Dustin Joseph, fired 30 shots into a car idling on a residential street, killing Mario Romero, a 22-year-old black man. A 2015 BuzzFeed News investigation found multiple eyewitnesses who disputed the department’s claims that Romero had fired at the officers. Kenney was not disciplined or charged but instead promoted to detective. The city settled with Romero's family for $2 million. After retiring from the force in 2018, Kenney started a law enforcement consulting firm.

In 2018, Officer Ryan McMahon fatally shot Ronnell Foster, a 32-year-old black man, after stopping him for a traffic infraction while riding his bike. McMahon said he opened fire because Foster had reached for the flashlight he was holding, and he feared he would hit him with it. The officer was cleared of any wrongdoing. In 2019, a group of officers fatally shot Willie McCoy, a 20-year-old black man, while he slept in his car in a Taco Bell drive-thru with a gun in his lap. The officers claimed he made a move for the gun while rustling awake; an outside consultant hired by the department released a 51-page report concluding that the actions were “reasonable and in line with contemporary training and police practices.”

Relatives of people killed or injured by Vallejo police have accused the department of intimidation tactics. Romero’s sister, who organized protests against the department, told BuzzFeed News she sometimes saw a police car parked outside her house.

Wendy Villegas Martinez told the San Francisco Chronicle the same thing happened to her family after she posted a video on Facebook of a Vallejo officer roughing up her son during a traffic stop in 2019. That same year, after Adrian Burrell, a black 28-year-old Marine veteran, began filming a traffic stop involving his cousin in front of his house; an officer slammed him to the ground, giving him a concussion, he told Reason. The city has paid out $7 million in civil rights settlements tied to lawsuits against the department since 2011.

UPDATE

Monterrosa's parents are from Argentina. A lawyer for the family previously misidentified where they are from.

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