Prosecutor: Police Won’t Be Tried for Mexican’s Death in Washington

Sep 10, 2015
12:57 PM
Antonio Zambrano-Montes was shot and killed by police officers in Washington. He was carrying a rock.

Antonio Zambrano-Montes was shot and killed by police officers in Washington back in February. He was carrying a rock.

The three police officers who shot and killed Antonio Zambrano-Montes in Pasco, Washington last February will not face charges in court.

After reviewing the evidence gathered by the Tri-City Special Investigative Unit, Franklin County prosecutor Shawn Sant said in a Wednesday press conference that officers Ryan Flanagan, Adam Wright and Adrian Alaniz “used lethal force to prevent injury to themselves and others.”

Zambrano-Montes was shot and killed on February 10 by police officers responding to a 911 call about a man throwing rocks at cars in a parking lot. When the officers arrived, Zambrano-Montes began throwing rocks at police officers.

Video of the incident shows the 35-year-old orchard worker and Michoacán native throwing a rock at a cop car as one officer attempts to Taser him, at which point Zambrano-Montes flees across an intersection and police open fire. The man continues running with a 2.8-pound rock in his hand and the officers in pursuit.

As he turns toward the officers, they unload 17 rounds at him, at least five of which find their mark.

The video, recorded on a motorist’s iPhone and uploaded onto YouTube, has been viewed over two million in the past seven months.

Leaders of Pasco’s Consejo Latino —a local organization whose declared aim is to promote the “economic development for Hispanic-owned businesses” and “cross-cultural communication and understanding”— immediately contacted Latino Rebels and appeared on Latino Rebels Radio a few days later to discuss the shooting.

As chairman Felix Vargas said on the show:

Something horrible has happened in our community, which is broadly recognized as a complete breakdown in what is normally accepted as standard behavior and actions here. We have a breakdown in policies and procedures, which were graphically captured in the cell phone videos of the incident, which point to the underlying problems of how the police relate to their community and how the police comport themselves in front of a community that they are to serve and protect. It’s very troubling, I must say, I mean, having been a military guy, having been in three wars as an infantry officer… I know about rules of engagement, I know about continued use of force, and every practice that I’m aware of was violated.

The next day Consejo Latino sent a letter to the U.S. attorney general’s office “request[ing] the immediate intervention by the U.S. Department of Justice.” The group made clear that:

any investigation of this killing conducted by fellow police officers will have no credibility whatsoever. It is obvious to Consejo Latino that the perception in our community will be that local authorities have a conflict of interest. Indeed, in the past six months, there have been four police shootings in Pasco (including Zambrano) which have been or are continuing to be investigated by the local SIU. The three completed investigations have all exonerated the police involved. Why would anyone believe that the local SIU investigation of the Zambrano killing will yield a different result?

Speaking with Latino Rebels this morning, Consejo Latino member Rick Rios said the prosecutor’s decision “underscores what we’ve been saying since the very, very beginning, from the time that the SIU’s investigation was launched.”

“It all came on the heels of Ferguson and New York,” Rios added. “It all came from the perspective of us saying, ‘You need to bring a third party in here to make these decisions, because you’re not gonna be able to do it.’ ”

Rios recalled that when he and other members of Consejo Latino met with police chief Bob Metzger two weeks prior to the fatal shooting, Pasco’s top cop denied any issue with the way in which officers interact with the community:

The reaction was exactly what the chief of police had said to another individual whose son was killed by the police. His name is Chris Jensen, and Chris Jensen was a Pasco policeman for 10 years [and a city councilman for 10]. But when he went in to meet with Chief Metzger about the inherent problems he saw about how Pasco police deals with mentally ill people and people under the influence, Chief Metzger said to him —and we know this to be true because Chris Jensen put this out as part of a public statement— Chief Metzger looked at him and said, ‘We don’t have any problems at the Pasco Police Department. And those were the exact same words that he said to us on January 27 when we met with him and three other officers from Pasco to say, ‘You guys have a problem brewing, and it’s your relationship to the Hispanic community.’ …

From that moment on, we kept saying, ‘Well, this man’s in denial. Something’s gonna happen; it’s just a matter of time.’ They’d already shot three people in a six-month period, and we point out, in those three shootings, not a single person protested. And three days after they shot Antonio, by the police’s own count, there were over 700 Mexicans who took to the streets. You don’t think there’s an underlying problem here? You don’t think that there’s resentment and problematic issues that are just simmering below the surface?

The local business leader underscored the community’s distrust in the very concept of internal police investigations, saying “it’s very, very difficult for the public to put trust in the police investigating the police so they can arrive at a police decision.”

A meme about police investigations into police misconduct

A meme about police investigations into police misconduct

Rios also expressed the distrust felt within the Latino community of a small, rural town:

It’s 65,000 people. It’s still run by a good ol’ boys network. How are you gonna take the prosecutor who deals with the police on a daily basis, who socializes with the police on a daily basis, whose friends’… their kids go to school together, he lives in this community with them— how is he gonna turn around and say, ‘Yeah, I’m gonna charge these officers’? So we knew from day one we needed to get somebody in here who’s not connected with these people.

To their credit, the U.S. Justice Department and the state attorney general’s office all issued statements saying they would get involved with the case. The state’s investigation was prompted by a letter from Gov. Jay Inslee to state attorney general Robert Ferguson, after the governor’s office “received a number of request for the state of Washington to intervene.”

Rios praised the immediacy with which both federal and state agencies responded to the situation in Pasco, pointing out that “from the very beginning, the only party that didn’t think there should be an independent review was the prosecutor who let these guys off.”

Asked about how the community is responding to the prosecutor’s decision not to try the three officers responsible for Zambrano-Montes’s death, Rios says “the community knew this was gonna happen”:

There has never been any doubt in anybody’s mind that [prosecutor] Sant was gonna let these guys off, and it’s because police have tremendous discretion about shooting people … as we see all the time. And yesterday prosecutor Sant focused on the most narrow of interpretations of the state legislature that said, unless he can prove evil intent, the police are free to shoot whoever, for whatever reason, if they think they’re a threat. As long as police don’t exhibit evil intent, it’s a green light. …

At what point is force excessive? These cops sprayed 17 shots through a crowded intersection. They still can’t account for three of those bullets. They put bullets in other people’s buildings. They shot holes in a refrigerator across the street. But in prosecutor Sant’s mind, that wasn’t the issue. And he said, ‘That wasn’t my concern. I didn’t even think about that.’ … And he kept saying, ‘It’s the legislature. It’s not me. It’s the legislature. The legislature says police have tremendous discretion. It’s up to them to decide who they’re gonna shoot, as long as there’s no evil intent.’

For allowing his personal life to interfere with his official duties, Rios compared prosecutor Sant to Kim Davis, the Kentucky county clerk who refused to issue marriage license to same-sex couples on account of her religious beliefs.

“What’s going to happen now is that the city is going to face massive civil lawsuits, and the entire police force and the entire prosecutor’s office are now going to come under review,” Rios said. “And whatever trust that might have existed has vanished in the eyes of the Hispanic community.”

Rios then touched on the importance of the Latino community in a town as small as Pasco:

We live in a town of 65,000 people; 60 percent of them are Mexican, 60 to 65 percent. We’re in the middle of harvest. The fruit is being harvested now. This is an unbelievable time here: without the Hispanics, this economy would collapse. …

We have an opportunity right here in Pasco to show the rest of the country how people can work together, but you gotta acknowledge that 65 percent of the population here is Hispanic and there’s not a single individual in a position of authority, not a single person. And there’s never gonna be, because that’s not the way things are structured. That’s not how they ever were structured, and nobody wants to give up what they already have.