PASCO, WASH. (AP) – The rallying cry in Ferguson, Missouri, was “Hands up, don’t shoot!” In New York, it was “I can’t breathe!” In Pasco these days, the protest signs say things like “It was just a rock!!!”
In a case with unmistakable echoes of Ferguson and New York, demonstrators have gathered every day during the past week in front of City Hall to demand answers in the deadly police shooting of Antonio Zambrano-Montes, a 35-year-old Mexican immigrant and former orchard worker who authorities say was throwing rocks at officers.
The Feb. 10 killing — captured on cellphone video by an onlooker — was the fourth by law enforcement officers in Pasco in less than a year. It has sparked calls for a federal investigation and roiled this fast-growing agricultural city of 68,000, where more than half the residents are Hispanic but few are members of the police force or the power structure.
Protesters and police officials alike say they want to avoid the violence and acrimony that happened in Ferguson last year when officers shot and killed an unarmed black 18-year-old.
“We will continue to be calm, until they give us a reason not to,” said protester Hector Alamillo, 62, of Pasco. “We are not a Ferguson. We will not burn things down.”
But Alamillo said Hispanics are “very distrustful right now” and are wondering why officers did not use non-lethal force to subdue Zambrano-Montes.
In the cellphone video, Zambrano-Montes is seen running across a busy street, pursued by three officers. As he stops and turns around, gunshots ring out and he falls dead.
While the shooting is under investigation by a regional task force — and being watched by the FBI — police have said that Zambrano-Montes had hit two officers with rocks and had refused to put down other stones. They also said a stun gun failed to subdue him.
The case has cast a spotlight on the ethnic makeup of working-class Pasco, an apple-, grape- and potato-growing center about 220 miles from Seattle that has more than doubled in size since 2000.
The city is more than 55 percent Hispanic; many members of the community flocked here from Mexico to work in the fields and at food-processing plants. Starting in the 1960s and ’70s, many of those migrant workers settled down here. Pasco’s modest downtown is now lined with Mexican restaurants, bakeries and clothing stores, and city business is conducted in English and Spanish.
The police force of 71 uniformed officers has just 15 Hispanics, and only one person on the seven-member City Council is Hispanic.
Once a hotbed of gang- and drug-related violence, the city has seen crime plummet in the past 20 years, in large part because the Hispanic community worked with police to drive out the bad guys, said police Capt. Ken Roske. But there are worries that future cooperation will be jeopardized if the investigation clears the officers.
“We are asking for more training for our officers,” said protester Lorian Reavely, 39, of Pasco, who stood in front of a sign reading “Stop Police Brutality. It was just a rock!!!”
Police said officers felt threatened by Zambrano-Montes. He had been arrested by Pasco police early last year for assault after throwing objects at officers and trying to grab an officer’s pistol, court records show.
Police have said Zambrano-Montes was not armed with either a gun or a knife. Whether he had a rock in his hand when he was shot is still under investigation, said Kennewick police Sgt. Ken Lattin, spokesman for the regional investigative unit. All three officers — two whites and one Hispanic — opened fire; the number of shots has not been disclosed.
Zambrano-Montes had recently spent time in a homeless shelter after his home burned. But investigators have been unable to interview anyone who saw him in the two weeks leading up to his death, Lattin said. Officers want to know if he had mental problems.
“His actions were not normal,” Lattin said at a news conference. “None of you would stand out there at 10th and Lewis Street and throw rocks at cars. And when the police show up, throw rocks at them and then run.”
Investigators’ findings will be turned over to prosecutors, who will decide whether to bring charges. The county coroner has also ordered a public inquest in hopes of calming “some of the fears and outrage of the community.”
In a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder, Felix Vargas, chairman of Consejo Latino, a local Hispanic group, said the investigation by the regional unit will have “no credibility whatsoever.” He noted that the unit exonerated officers in three other recent fatal shootings in Pasco.
“The eyes of the world are on Pasco,” Vargas said. “We fully expect charges to be brought.”
Last month, a Pasco officer was cleared in the deadly shooting of a suspected car thief who pulled a pellet gun. In December, an investigation concluded that a sheriff’s deputy was justified in killing an intoxicated man who fired more than 60 rounds at officers. In November, a prosecutor cleared two Pasco officers who shot and killed a knife-wielding man.
Zambrano-Montes’ widow and two daughters have filed a $25 million claim with the city in the first step toward a lawsuit. And a makeshift memorial to Zambrano-Montes has taken shape outside Vinny’s Bakery, a Mexican business near the spot where he was gunned down.
“The gentleman was being disruptive, but he was not violent enough to warrant guns,” said Ben Patrick, who said he witnessed the shooting. “It was wrong.”