When Sean Monterrosa became another Latino killed by police, his sisters fought back
Story by Nicole Chavez, CNN
Photographs by Joel Angel Juárez for CNN
Published 7:00 AM ET, Mon June 21, 2021
San Francisco — Ashley and Michelle Monterrosa took a deep breath and looked toward a group of mothers and siblings who understood the outrage and sorrow that led them to this moment. A few feet away, dozens of photos of people killed by police covered the plaza. A photo of their brother, Sean, stood right in the middle.
“We want justice for Sean, and we want that justice to mean that this can't happen to anyone anywhere else,” Ashley Monterrosa, 21, said standing on a stage in front of the San Francisco City Hall building earlier this month.
“And best believe we're pushing to be the last family affected by the Vallejo Police Department.”
A week after George Floyd was killed last year, the Monterrosa sisters drove from hospital to hospital in the Northern California city of Vallejo, struggling to get answers about the well-being of their brother after Sean’s girlfriend called them in the middle of the night crying. Several hours passed before they learned that Sean had been shot and killed by a police officer in the parking lot of a Walgreen’s store. Police said the officer mistook a hammer in his pocket for a gun.
The 22-year-old was just one of more than two thousand Latinos who experts estimate have been killed by police or died while in law enforcement custody in recent years. They are often left out of the debate over police brutality. Since Sean’s death on June 2, 2020, his sisters have set aside their grief to push for police reform out of love for their brother. But they are also fueled by anger over the decades of police brutality in the Latino community — something that persists to this day with the recent deaths of 13-year-old Adam Toledo in Chicago and Mario Gonzalez Arenales in the nearby Alameda, California.
By forming bonds with long time activists and grieving families from communities of color around the United States, the Monterrosa sisters have emerged as part of a new wave of Latinos claiming their seat in the fight against police brutality.
How Latinos fit in the national debate over police brutality
Black people and Latinos were more likely than White people to experience at least one type of force during contacts with police, according to 2018 figures by the US Bureau of Justice Statistics.
In Arizona, traffic stops made by Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office deputies involving Hispanic drivers were more likely to last longer and result in a citation, arrest, or search than stops involving White drivers, according to an annual report released earlier this month. Maricopa Sheriff Paul Penzone said the findings were consistent with past studies and “identify possible systemic racial bias,” in the agency’s patrol unit. The sheriff noted the agency has been providing extensive training “related to constitutional, bias-free policing” that includes workshops, videos and periodic roll call briefings.
A group of researchers, scholars, activists and family members of Latinos killed by police recently found that an estimated 2,653 Latinos were killed by police or died while in custody since 2014.
The group, the Raza Database Project, analyzed the entries of eight national databases that track police killings and compared the names to surname datasets from the 2010 US Census to spot any individuals in the "White," "Other," or "Unknown" categories who may have been misidentified.
Roberto Rodriguez, the project’s director, has told CNN the findings should not be considered final as its method may lead to both overcounting and undercounting but suggest that Latinos could be impacted by police violence at a greater rate than previously known.
Another member of the project, Enrique Murillo Jr., executive director of the Latino Education & Advocacy Days at California State University, San Bernardino, said Latinos tend to be included in the national debate only when it comes to immigration. He hopes America can soon start seeing that health care, education and police reform are top of mind for most Latinos.
“If the congressional hearings, if the legislation is only Black and White, then it’s not going to be enough,” Murillo says. “The response has to be broad enough to include all the communities.”
On a recent Saturday afternoon, Sean’s name echoed across the San Francisco street he grew up on. It was there where he walked a block to school as a young child, made friends around a neighbor’s bonfire and drove his first car. Now, dozens of people who made up all spheres of his life — activists, graffiti artists and lowrider enthusiasts — sang in unison, pledging to continue seeking justice for him.
I will not tire, I will go on
Te lo prometo, hermano Sean
Un corazón, contigo Tucán
We will not tire, we will go on
A few days after the first anniversary of Sean’s death, family members and friends wore buttons and T-shirts emblazoned with his name, face and a colorful toucan — an homage to his love for Fruit Loops and his fondness for drawing the character Tucán Sam. At this block party, they remembered a soft-spoken young man who centered his life around family, social justice and art.
At 22 years old, Sean had spent months waking up at 5 a.m. to commute to a nearby Bay Area city to learn carpentry for hours. Later in the afternoon, he would head to his job as a cement mason.
“He learned all those skills because his dream was to buy my mom a rundown home and then build it the way she would have wanted,” said his sister 25-year-old Michelle.
When their parents arrived in the US from Argentina more than 20 years ago, they couldn’t make a living out of their established professions. Their father, a surgeon, couldn’t practice medicine due to the strict American licensing rules for foreign doctors and took a job at a restaurant. Meanwhile, their mother, who had been a teacher, became a nanny and caregiver.
Seeing the sacrifices that his parents made, Sean was motivated to provide for his family and eventually build generational wealth. By the time he was 14, he started selling bacon-wrapped hot dogs outside local nightclubs.
But it wasn’t all work for Sean all the time. Some days, he would spend hours drawing, reading Malcom X’s autobiography and talking with his now 99-year-old grandmother Dolores. Other days, he would be outside working on his 1980 Chevrolet El Camino or rooting for the San Francisco Giants at Oracle Park.
A national uprising hits close to home
Like millions of Americans, the Monterrosas’ lives slowly began to change last year. When numerous Bay Area businesses suffered revenue losses amid the Covid-19 pandemic lockdowns, the siblings were laid off. Frustrated at first, they would go on to spend most of their days together, shopping for groceries early in the morning to avoid long lines and teaching each other how to cook.
“Being the handyman he was, Sean would ask ‘I'm home, what can I fix mom? What drawer do I need to fix? What do I need to buy to fix la cocina (the kitchen)?’ He just wanted to help improve where we live in,” Michelle said.
It felt like they became even closer while “trying to survive” the pandemic, Ashley and Michelle told CNN.
When George Floyd was killed by police in Minneapolis and a national uprising began, the Monterrosa siblings couldn’t ignore it. They often discussed how they saw police brutality and racial bias disproportionately impacting Black and brown people in their own community.
“Police brutality is not something new to San Francisco,” Michelle told CNN. “Growing up in the public school system, our teachers would cancel classes to go to protests, to go to vigils. That’s really where our support for activism started at a really young age.”
They knew the names of numerous people killed in police encounters and went to protests for them, including one for another Latino who lived and died in their neighborhood. In 2014, Alex Nieto was shot multiple times by San Francisco police officers responding to a report of a man with a gun at a hilltop park, CNN affiliate KPIX reported.
The 28-year-old had been eating a burrito at the park before going to his job as a security guard at a nightclub and was carrying a Taser stun gun, KPIX reported. A witness testified in a federal court that Nieto kept his hands in his pockets, KPIX reported, but the officers said he pointed the device at them. A federal civil jury found the officers did not use unconstitutional excessive force against Nieto.
The shooting took place at a park in the same neighborhood where the Monterrosas live and years later, they attended classes at City College of San Francisco, where Nieto was also a student.
They had been empathetic to the grief and outrage of the many Black and brown families who lost a loved one to police violence when a week after Floyd’s killing, those feelings now became their own.
Police say Sean was shot and killed by a police officer in the parking lot of a Walgreens store in Vallejo, California — a small city about 30 miles north of San Francisco.
Several officers arrived to the store’s parking lot to investigate reports of looting on a night of civil unrest and one of them fired his weapon five times through the windshield of an unmarked police vehicle, striking Monterrosa once, police said.
The officer mistook a hammer in Monterrosa's sweatshirt pocket for a gun, police said.
There is no video footage that shows what Sean was doing in his last moments, leaving police and his family to argue about what he was doing at the time of the shooting.
Vallejo Chief of Police Shawny Williams told reporters on the day after the shooting that Sean “appeared to be running toward a 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.”
On the same day, the police department released a statement saying Monterrosa was “crouching down in a half-kneeling position as if in preparation to shoot, and moving his hands toward his waist area near what appeared to be the butt of a handgun.”
The Vallejo police union said in a statement dated June 5, 2020, that Monterrosa did not “make any movements consistent with surrendering.” He “crouched into a tactical shooting position” and grabbed an object in his waistband that appeared to be a firearm, the union said.
But attorney Lee Merritt, who represents the family, said the family believes Sean was kneeling with his hands up when he was shot and killed. He described the shooting as one of the “more brazen uses of force” he’s ever seen. In the past, Merritt represented families whose Black relatives were killed by police officers in their homes, including Botham Jean and Atatiana Jefferson. The former Dallas police officer who shot Jean was convicted of murder. Meanwhile, the officer who fatally shot Jefferson pled not guilty to a murder charge in connection with the case and awaits trial, according to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.
Body camera footage released by police does not show Monterrosa in the moments before he was shot. It mostly shows the interior of the unmarked police vehicle as the shooting took place and the incident’s aftermath. Williams has said a surveillance camera outside the Walgreens that could have potentially captured the encounter was destroyed earlier that week in a looting incident.
More than a year since Sean’s death, his family is still waiting for answers. The Solano County district attorney recused herself from an investigation into the deadly shooting last year and former California Attorney General Xavier Becerra only announced a review of the Vallejo Police Department’s policies.
When asked for comment about Sean’s case, police spokeswoman Brittany K. Jackson referred CNN to several statements made by city officials and police last year. In a recent interview for CNN’s “United Shades of America” with W. Kamau Bell, Chief Williams said sent his sympathies to the Monterrosa family and noted that after the shooting he asked for a third-party administrative investigation.
“Those are unfortunate circumstances, they are tragic, and we want to assure the public that we are doing everything that we need to do to look critically at those incidents so that we can improve our processes,” Williams told Bell.
Last month, California Attorney General Rob Bonta announced that his office will be reviewing the case after the Monterrosa family, and the people of Vallejo have “been met with silence.”
While Merritt applauded Bonta’s decision, he said he would like to see state officials move with some urgency.
“To see that those officers have gotten away with that really poor excuse for this long, without a probable cause arrest and serious prosecution, it makes us all less safe,” Merritt said.
Meanwhile, a federal civil rights lawsuit filed by the Monterrosa family against the city of Vallejo and the officer who shot Sean remains pending.
Authorities declined to name the officer who shot Sean, neither confirmed whether the officer has returned to patrol duty by citing a temporary restraining order filed by the police union and the officer’s attorney.
In their lawsuit, attorneys for the family argue the shooting was “brutal, malicious, and done without just provocation or cause” and that the officer could not see accurately through the windshield.
The lawsuit also claims the Vallejo Police Department tampered with evidence from the shooting and has failed to reprimand or retrain the officer after being involved in several prior on-duty shootings.
Attorneys representing the city and the officer did not respond to requests for comment on the ongoing litigation. They have filed a response to the lawsuit denying the family’s allegations.
When asked about its review of allegations that police tampered with evidence in Sean’s case, a spokesperson with the state’s attorney general office told CNN the investigation was completed and its findings were shared with local officials. The agency, the spokesperson added, will “be taking on the review of this investigation in addition to our review of Sean Monterrosa's case.”
From grief to activism
No more than an hour before his death, Sean planted the seeds of the journey that his sisters would take after the sudden, gruesome tragedy uprooted their lives. He sent Ashley and Michelle a text message asking them to sign a petition demanding justice for Floyd.
“That last text message on this earth from Sean was almost like, ‘here's a baton, run with, bring our Black and brown solidarity back’,” Michelle said.
Michelle still wishes those last words were “I love you,” “What are we eating tomorrow?” or even a text letting her know that he was on his way home. But she knows his words were the reflection of a compassionate man eager to use his voice to call for justice.
As the weeks passed, something became very clear for the sisters. They couldn’t merely sit at home and mourn Sean if they were not going to do something to bring accountability, they said.
Across the state, at least five other Latinos were killed by law enforcement in the three weeks since Sean’s death, including Andres Guardado. In Vallejo, dozens of people took the streets to protest in the weeks after the deadly shooting — “they didn’t know him but were well aware of the pain and grief caused by the deaths of Black and brown people at the hands of police.” Activists in the city also fundraised money to put up billboards with Sean’s face.
In the months since Sean’s death, the community has raised concerns about other fatal shootings. In a little more than a decade, Vallejo police have fatally shot 17 others and many of them were people of color, according to KTVU. The cases are under investigation.
“Every time there’s someone else dying, they are having to go out and protest not only for their loved one but for someone else’s loved one,” said Louis Michael, founder of grassroots community group Vessels of Vallejo, about the families of victims of police violence in the city.
Last year, Ashley and Michelle began telling their brother’s story in front of cameras, outside the home of California Gov. Gavin Newsom in Sacramento even when it led to their arrest, and in front of strangers at rallies across the country.
Meeting numerous victims’ families in California and other states, the sisters say, opened their eyes about how many people don’t see police brutality as an issue that impacts Latinos and the lack of unity among Black and Latino communities when it comes to police reform.
“We've been with families from all different backgrounds and it doesn't matter what race someone is or ethnicity, police brutality is still gonna come for you,” Ashley said.
Together, people of color are “more powerful to bring change,” the sisters say.
Beyond the rallies and video calls, Ashley and Michelle are pushing for legislative changes.
For months, they’ve made calls and testified in front of lawmakers in California for legislation, SB 2, that would create a process to decertify law enforcement officers who engage in “serious misconduct” and for a separate bill, SB 299, that would expand victims compensation to cases involving police confrontations. In January, they became chapter coordinators and members of Crime Survivors for Safety and Justice, a national organization advocating for victims’ rights policies.
“We can always hit the streets … we can protest but it's meaningless if we're not working on anything on the back end to hold people in office accountable,” Ashley said.
Michelle was driving to the state Capitol to testify in front of lawmakers when she stopped at a red light and looked to her right. There it was, a 1980 El Camino just like the one Sean loved and maintained with so much care.
“It was almost like a sign from Sean of ‘you’re going to do something powerful … I’m here with you’,” Michelle said.
“A love tap,” she added.
Earlier this month, the Monterrosa sisters spent days reflecting on how they transitioned from being scared in the hours after Sean’s death to seeing activism as their full-time job. The one-year mark of Sean’s death was approaching and once again, they couldn’t shut themselves in at home. Not after they had found their voice speaking for Sean.
A day after they remembered Sean with a block party along the street they grew up on, Ashley and Michelle led their parents to a stage across the San Francisco’s City Hall building under the afternoon’s sun and winds of the Bay Area. They held their heads high and took the podium together. They held nothing back when they talked about the pleas that had gone unanswered for more than a year.
It was a moment of empowerment by two young women from a marginalized community. Two sisters trying to take back a piece of what police stripped away just as the nation tried to awaken to one of its deepest problems.