In the Tri-Cities, new facts are emerging in the police shooting of 35-year-old Mexican farmworker Antonio Zambrano-Montes.
Several cell phone videos posted on YouTube, show the shooting in grainy but graphic detail. Zambrano-Montes was reportedly throwing rocks in a crowded intersection. Police showed up, tried to stop him, then tazed him. Zambrano-Montes ran across the intersection. Shots were fired.
Then Zambrano-Montes ran down a sidewalk. He turned briefly to face police and they let off a second volley and Zambrano-Montes fell onto the sidewalk near a large big-box Mexican grocery in the crowded afternoon.
Pasco is a farming town nestled snug into the confluence of the Columbia, Snake and Yakima rivers in southeast Washington.
Onion peels flit like butterflies along the highways. And massive food processing plants occasionally stink up suburban backyards in the early morning. Many Latinos from Mexico, South America and also from California migrated here to harvest asparagus, cherries and apples. They’ve raised children, bought homes and started businesses.
Third and fourth generations have put down roots here too. They’re earning college degrees and taking leadership roles. But the shooting of Zambrano-Montes by Pasco police has thrust this fast-growing town into the national spotlight.
Hundreds have turned out to protest. They marched from a city park to the site of the shooting. Tall Catholic candles were arranged on the sidewalk into the shape of a cross. Large rocks with sharpie inscriptions to the Zambrano-Montes families were there too. The solemn-mouthed crowd prayed, chanted and sang songs.
Some Pasco residents said police have to make tough decisions in seconds and there have been demonstrations of people waving American flags to support the police officers.
Twenty-nine-year-old Chris Black said he’s an Iraq-war veteran and he wanted to come support the police.
“I think the system needs to be given time for the proper channels and the investigation to be done before we start screaming and yelling at people saying, ‘Hey, we want answers,’” Black said. “It’s a process. Let’s respect that process.”
Others, like Pasco resident Martin Camacho disagreed.
“You know what, after watching the YouTube video I think that it looks pretty bad,” he said. “You know, it looks like the victim was saying, ‘No, don’t, don’t shoot me.’”
Investigators said none of the three Pasco, Washington, officers involved in the shooting were certified Spanish speakers.
Shortly after the protests began, some Pasco residents like business leader Felix Vargas began calling for a federal investigation into the shooting. He doesn’t think that the neighboring town of Kennewick’s police force can fully disclose the truth.
“In short, what we want is a full set of eyes at the state, national level to be done,” Vargas said. “So really the eyes of the world are upon Pasco, we have an opportunity here to do something which is credible.”
Some national media are comparing this shooting to what happened in Ferguson, Missouri. Vargas said there are some similarities, but also some key differences.
“Ferguson arguably was a much more complicated matter. And it really called into question, what the police did and how they did it,” he said. “In the case of Mr. Zambrano, we have a man who was running away, who wanted to disengage, who wanted to de-escalate the conflict. There is room for improvement.”
Others here, like Latricia Brooks, said they don’t feel heavy racism in Pasco. That they don’t fear the police. Brooks said she’s more upset about where and when this latest shooting happened.
“As I watched the video, because I wasn’t there, I just thought it was very dangerous and reckless because of the fact there could have been children in the stores or somewhere nearby,” she said. “Bullets just don’t go straight they bounce off of things.”
As to why Zambrano-Montes was throwing rocks, his cousin Maria Madrigal said he wasn’t well lately. He had injured his hands. His wife had divorced him and taken their daughters to California.
“He wouldn’t have conversations with me like he used to,” Madrigal said. “Normally me and him would joke around. We’d talk smack to each other sometimes, but playing around. This time I was cutting his hair, I tried to have a conversation and he would cut it short.”
Kennewick is just across the Columbia River from Pasco. And its police department has been tasked with investigating the shooting of Zambrano-Montes by Pasco Police. Kennewick Police said about 40 witnesses have already come forward. They’re looking for more who might have interacted with Zambrano-Montes in the hours before the shooting.
“His actions are not normal,” Kennewick’s Police Sergeant Ken Lattin said at a briefing this week, referring to Zambrano-Montes. “None of you would stand out at 10th and Lewis Street and throw rocks at cars and when the police show up, throw rocks them and then run,” Lattin said. “That’s not normal, reasonable behavior. We just want to know why.”
A number of questions about the shooting remain. Did Zambrano-Montes have a rock in his hand when he was shot? What caused him to throw rocks in the first place? How many bullets hit him? Was he on drugs or alcohol? Were the police officers calling out to him in English or Spanish?
Kennewick investigators say they are still looking for those answers.
Meanwhile, the Zambrano-Montes family is preparing a $25 million lawsuit against the City of Pasco. The family has also called for a second autopsy.
The FBI is monitoring the Kennewick Police Department’s investigation into shooting. And small groups are still turning out every day at city hall to protest the death of Zambrano-Montes.