Cleo Moore, wearing a faded T-shirt, answered the door of her Daly City home just south of San Francisco on a recent February afternoon.
The shirt had a screen-print photo of Sean Moore, her deceased youngest son, who is wearing a baseball uniform and posing in a batting stance.
“He’s a human being,” she said. “He wasn’t a dog to be shot down like he was shot down.”
Sean Moore was raised in a family of San Francisco public servants. Cleo, his mother, spent four decades as a nurse at San Francisco General Hospital. His father, the late Loyce Amos Moore, worked for Muni for 30 years. His older half-brother, Kenneth Blackmon, recently retired from the San Francisco Juvenile Probation Department after 20 years.
Cleo said she often worked alongside police officers and sheriff’s deputies at the hospital, and her father and brother were law enforcement officers in Texas.
“I’m not against police officers,” she said. “There’s a need for good police officers.”
But she is glad that over four years after her youngest son was shot by a San Francisco police officer, and a year after he died from complications of the gunshot wound, the officer was recently charged with manslaughter for his death.
“If it had been Sean that had done what this officer did, he wouldn’t see the light of day. He’s no different,” Cleo said.
The charges against San Francisco Police Officer Kenneth Cha for shooting Sean Moore are part of a new wave of police prosecutions in the Bay Area that come during a major shift in police accountability in California and the rest of the country. Before the 2020 public murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin reignited a nationwide protest movement against police violence, it would have been unusual to see even one of these manslaughter cases brought to trial. These recent cases may chart the course for police prosecutions moving forward, setting new guardrails for officer use of force.
The facts of the five Bay Area cases charged since Floyd’s death vary. All concern killings that occurred before Floyd’s death, the earliest reaching back five years. Three of the people killed were Black men.
- San Leandro Police Officer Jason Fletcher tased and then shot Steven Taylor as he held a baseball bat inside a San Leandro Walmart in 2020.
- Sonoma County Sheriff’s Deputy Charles Blount choked David Ward through the window of his car after a chase in Sonoma County in 2019.
- Contra Costa County Sheriff’s Deputy Andrew Hall shot at Laudemer Arboleda eight times in 2018 as the man drove into a gap between two police cars and Hall ran into the vehicle’s path.
- Rookie San Francisco Police Officer Christopher Samayoa fatally shot Keita O’Neil as he fled after allegedly stealing a lottery van in San Francisco in 2017.
- San Francisco Police Officer Kenneth Cha shot Sean Moore in the stomach and the groin in 2017 after responding to a noise complaint at Moore’s home.
Cristine Soto DeBerry, executive director of the Prosecutors Alliance of California, a group that advocates for progressive criminal justice reforms, said many district attorneys are paying attention to police killings more closely than they ever have before.
“It really was not the central focus of most prosecutors’ offices anywhere to think about, ‘How well am I regulating police excessive use of force?’” DeBerry said. “That was not a commonly held conversation in the profession.”
Now, she says, it is.
Necessary vs. reasonable
Alameda County’s prosecution of San Leandro Police Officer Jason Fletcher is the singular Bay Area case that relies on Assembly Bill 392, a 2020 state law that only justifies the use of deadly force when an officer believes, “based on the totality of the circumstances, that such force is necessary,” as opposed to the previous standard of “reasonable.”
The prosecution is widely seen as a test case for California’s new standard, which is the strictest in the country, and could inspire changes in other states.
On April 18, 2020, Fletcher responded to calls from a Walmart in San Leandro, reporting a man holding a baseball bat. Body camera footage showed the suspect, Steven Taylor, standing by shopping carts near the front of the store, still holding the bat, as Fletcher arrived at the scene, alone. Critically, Fletcher made the decision to move toward the 33-year-old Black man, telling him to “drop the bat,” and then trying to grab it from him.
“You’re going to have to, you’re going to have to,” Taylor said, according to a bystander’s cellphone video of the incident.
Fletcher then tased Taylor twice, and then shot him once as he staggered forward.
Under the standard of the new law, a district attorney must consider the “totality of circumstances” leading up to the moment an officer shoots, including decisions the officer makes. Fletcher engaged Taylor without waiting for backup to arrive, and he failed to try to deescalate the situation, according to subsequent criminal and administrative investigations.
“He was comin’ to kill me,” Fletcher said, according to a partial transcript of his interview with criminal investigators that was made public. “He’s not coming to give me a hug. He’s not comin’ to say, ‘Hey, sorry about that.’ He’s got wires in him. I’ve shocked the shit out of him twice. I don’t know if he’s crazy. I don’t know if he’s on drugs. He’s comin’ to kill me. And I’m not gonna die in a fuckin’ Walmart.”
The Alameda County District Attorney’s Office investigation, however, found that Taylor “posed no threat of imminent deadly force or serious bodily injury to defendant Fletcher or anyone else in the store,” it said in a press release, announcing the decision to charge Taylor with voluntary manslaughter.
Fletcher has pleaded not guilty. His lawyer declined to comment for this story. A judge is expected to set a trial date in April.
While none of his deputies are charged, Alameda County Sheriff Greg Ahern said law enforcement leaders like him are paying close attention to the rise in officer prosecutions. He declined to comment directly on Fletcher’s case, but said those in law enforcement often evaluate fatal incidents differently from the public.
“It’s difficult to get into that officer’s mind unless you’ve actually been in law enforcement — if you haven’t been in those dangers,” he said.
On Nov. 3, 2018, Laudemer Arboleda fled from a traffic stop in the East Bay suburb of Danville. At the end of a low-speed car chase, he steered his car into a gap between two patrol cars. Contra Costa County Sheriff’s Deputy Andrew Hall ran around the front of one of the cars, putting himself in the path of Arboleda’s slow-moving vehicle before shooting him nine times, killing him.
It wasn’t until April 21, 2021, that Contra Costa County District Attorney Diana Becton filed charges against Hall, the same day the sheriff’s office released video of Hall fatally shooting another man, Tyrell Wilson, the month before. Becton, a member of DeBerry’s progressive Prosecutors Alliance, announced charges against Hall the day after Derek Chauvin was convicted of murdering George Floyd in Minneapolis.
“Officer Hall’s actions underscore the need for a continued focus on de-escalation training and improved coordinated responses to individuals suffering from mental illness,” Becton said in her charging announcement.
She did not respond to emails requesting comment for this story.
Although national data is unreliable, research from the national Treatment Advocacy Center, a mental health advocacy group, estimates that people with a serious mental illness are 16 times more likely to be killed in encounters with law enforcement. In some cities, as many as half of the people shot and killed by police are experiencing a psychiatric crisis.
In four of the five Bay Area cases that have recently been prosecuted, the person killed was determined to be experiencing psychiatric distress or suffering from ongoing mental illness.
The jury found Hall guilty of assault with a firearm but deadlocked on the higher charge of voluntary manslaughter. Still, Hall faces up to 17 years in prison, with sentencing scheduled for early March. Hall’s lawyer declined to comment for this story.
San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin, also a member of the Prosecutors Alliance, has filed charges against two officers for killing Black men who were not armed. Statistics collected by The Washington Post show that Black people in the U.S. are fatally shot by police at more than twice the rate of white people.
Christopher Samayoa, the San Francisco police officer who fatally shot 42-year-old Keita O’Neil on Dec. 1, 2017, faces manslaughter and assault charges. The incident occurred after O’Neil, who was later found to be unarmed, ditched a state lottery van he’d allegedly stolen and started running. As O’Neil tried to flee, Samayoa shot at him through the passenger window of his police car.
The police department fired Samayoa, still a probationary officer, in early 2018. His lawyer declined to comment for this story.
Kenneth Cha, the other officer charged by Boudin, shot Sean Moore on Jan. 6, 2017, after responding to a neighbor’s noise complaint. From behind a metal door grate, Moore told Cha and his partner to leave and shouted obscenities at them, body camera video of the incident shows. The two officers then retreated, but subsequently climbed back up the steps and tried to detain Moore when he opened the door to pick something up outside. When Moore began to fight with the officers, Cha fired twice, hitting him in the stomach and the groin.
Boudin charges that officers overstepped their legal authority when they went back up the steps to Moore’s residence after being told to leave. Cha’s lawyer did not respond to requests for comment.
“You know, we have a right,” Moore’s mother, Cleo, said. “We’re Black, but we have a right. We are honest, working people. My son had a nice, honest education. He can’t control that he had a mental illness.”
Moore, who was diagnosed with schizophrenia, died in San Quentin State Prison in 2020, where he was serving time on unrelated charges. The coroner found that complications from the 3-year-old gunshot wound caused Moore’s death.
These prosecutions may have political ramifications for district attorneys. In San Francisco, the police chief recently moved to sever an agreement that allowed the DA’s office to take the lead on police killings and use-of-force investigations, accusing Boudin’s office of violating the agreement by withholding information from the police department. The DA has denied violating the agreement.
“Public trust in law enforcement requires equal enforcement of the law,” Boudin said. “It requires that we dispassionately and neutrally look at police use-of-force cases and evaluate whether the force used was proportionate and lawful under the circumstances.”
Another reason for the recent rise in police prosecutions, according to DeBerry, is the widespread adoption of body cameras and the ubiquity of bystanders recording video, yielding footage that can provide key evidence beyond the word of police officers.
All of the recent officer prosecutions in the Bay Area rely heavily on body camera footage.
During the trial of former Sonoma County Sheriff’s Deputy Charles Blount, the jury was shown disturbing footage in which Blount reached through the window of David Ward’s car to try to pull him out, before repeatedly slamming Ward’s head against the side of the vehicle.
Through the driver’s side window, Blount then wrapped his arms around Ward’s neck in an unorthodox hold — a maneuver that has since been banned in California — until Ward lost consciousness. Ward never woke up and was pronounced dead at a nearby hospital about an hour later.
Officers began their seven-minute pursuit of Ward based on reports that the car he was driving had been stolen in an armed carjacking. But moments after the struggle, as Ward lay handcuffed and unresponsive on the ground, another deputy recognized him and told Blount that Ward was in fact the owner of the vehicle.
“Oh, well,” Blount responded.
That’s when officers realized Ward had stopped breathing.
Ultimately, however, neither the graphic body camera footage nor expert testimony convinced the jury of Blount’s guilt. He was acquitted of all charges.
Blount’s lawyer, Harry Stern, argued that Ward’s drug use and compromised health caused his death — although the death was identified as a homicide in the coroner’s report.
Civil rights attorney Izaak Schwaiger, who represented Ward’s family in a civil lawsuit, said the verdict grants law enforcement a “seal of approval” to act with impunity in Sonoma County. The county settled the civil case for $3.8 million.
“I’m afraid that here, Sonoma County is showing its true colors and that they’re not ready for more progressive government, and they’re not ready for accountability within law enforcement,” Schwaiger said.
On June 2, 2020, as protests against police brutality and the killing of Floyd and Breonna Taylor continued across the Bay Area, Vallejo Police Detective Jarrett Tonn shot and killed Sean Monterrosa outside a Walgreens. Monterrosa had a hammer in his sweatshirt pocket, which Tonn said he mistook for a gun.
Vallejo Police Chief Shawny Williams moved to fire Tonn in December after an independent investigation found that the shooting was not reasonable. The report said that the officers who drove up to the Walgreens to stop a potential burglary in progress didn’t have enough evidence that Monterrosa was a deadly threat. It also criticized the officers for rushing into the situation without a plan, creating a chain of events that led to the fatal shooting.
The Solano County district attorney declined to review the incident for criminal violations, which left the charging decision in the hands of state Attorney General Rob Bonta. His office is currently reviewing the case.
“For our family, what criminal charges for Jarrett Tonn would mean, you know, it’s the bare minimum,” said Michelle Monterrosa, Sean’s sister.