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17 Shots: Police Killing of Unarmed Mexican Farmworker in Washington State Sparks Protest

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Authorities in Pasco, Washington, have revealed police fired 17 shots at Antonio Zambrano-Montes, an unarmed Mexican farmworker who was shot dead on February 10. Cellphone video shows Zambrano turning to face police and raising his hands before he is shot. The shooting has sparked weeks of protests. Live from Pasco, we speak with Felix Vargas, chairman of Consejo Latino, a group of local businessmen in Pasco who are working with Zambrano’s family. We also talk to Jennifer Shaw, deputy director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington state and a member of the Community Police Commission in Seattle.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: After our next segment, we’ll talk about Governor Scott Walker comparing unions to the self-proclaimed Islamic State. But first, this.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, for the second time in about two weeks, the Mexican government has expressed outrage over police shootings of unarmed immigrants by police officers in the United States. Mexican authorities say police in Grapevine, Texas, violated a decades-old treaty by waiting four days to inform them of the killing of Rubén García Villalpando. Police say they shot García early Saturday morning during a traffic stop, after he defied orders to halt and walked toward a patrol car with his hands in the air. García’s attorney and a local activist described their account of the shooting to news station KDFW.

CARLOS QUINTANILLA: When the officers said, “Don’t move, mother F,” he stayed there. And for one reason or another, Rubén begins to walk towards a police officer, and that one second passed, and the officer fired twice—pop, pop—and Rubén was dead.

DOMINGO GARCIA: When this video is released, you will show that there is a man, who has no prior criminal record, a wife and four children, who puts his hands on his head, and is shot through twice because he asked the officer to treat him with respect and dignity and not to be calling him “mother F,” multiple times.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: The shooting in Texas comes just 10 days after the police killing of Antonio Zambrano-Montes in Pasco, Washington. Zambrano was reportedly throwing rocks at police officers when he was killed. The incident happened at a busy intersection. Several eyewitnesses recorded cellphone video that shows Zambrano turning to face police, raising his hands before he’s shot. On Thursday, authorities confirmed how many times they fired at Zambrano. This is Sergeant Ken Lattin of the Kennewick County Police Department.

SGT. KEN LATTIN: Ultimately—this was a question that you had had—we’ve determined that they fired their weapons 17 times. Seventeen rounds were fired. Of those, five or six rounds struck Mr. Zambrano. We say five or six rounds because there’s obviously been two autopsies: one by—conducted by the medical examiner that was brought in by the coroner, and then, as Mr. Sant specified last week, the body was released to the family, they brought in their own independent pathologist to do an autopsy. And so, those results of both autopsies are not yet complete. Without going into any sort of gruesome detail, it’s not easy to determine, when you look at entry wounds and exit wounds, for sure, how many rounds.

AMY GOODMAN: The Pasco police also said Zambrano was not shot in the back, contradicting an independent autopsy by the victim’s family that found two entry wounds on the back of his body—one on the back his right arm and another in his buttocks. Zambrano’s family has now hired the attorney for Michael Brown’s family in Ferguson, Missouri, Benjamin Crump, who visited Pasco to meet with them this week. Pasco is about, oh, three-and-a-half hours southeast of Seattle.

All of this comes as the Mexican government reports 75 Mexicans have been killed by law officers in the United States since 2006.

For more, we go to Pasco, Washington, where we’re joined by Felix Vargas, the chairman of Consejo Latino, a group of local businessmen in Pasco who are working with Zambrano’s family and helping to call for justice in his shooting death. Vargas is a retired U.S. diplomat and Army colonel.

And we’re joined in Seattle by Jennifer Shaw, deputy director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington state and a member of the Community Police Commission in Seattle. She wrote a letter urging the Justice Department to launch an investigation into the fatal police shooting of Antonio Zambrano-Montes in Pasco, saying the local police probe is needlessly focusing on his activities prior to the incident.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Let’s go directly to Pasco. Felix Vargas, explain what happened and the fact there’s so much video of this. It was during rush hour?

FELIX VARGAS: Yes, it was. A crowded intersection, downtown Pasco, a gentleman is seen throwing rocks at cars. Police are called. There’s a minor scuffle. And then you see the gentleman running across the street away from the police. The police draw their weapons and fire an initial volley of shots at him. It appears that they hit him. He gets to the other side of the street, he turns left, heads west. The police are in pursuit of him, three, four yards behind him. He’s wounded. He turns around, appears to raise his arms up. He does not have a knife or a gun in his hand. And then he is effectively executed by the second volley of shots. In all, as you said, 17 shots were fired. The initial autopsy shows that five to six rounds made impact. We have a second autopsy, which was performed by the family’s forensic examiner, and that shows seven to eight impacts on the body. So, that is what has happened. It has really disturbed this community as never before.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Mr. Vargas, what has been so far the reaction of local authorities in terms of the police officers involved?

FELIX VARGAS: Well, the authorities have promised to withhold judgment until a police investigation of the police shooting takes place. There’s a special investigative unit, which is set up, excluding the participation by the Pasco police. But that particular unit is talking to witnesses and doing their own investigation. They do emphasize that this will be an impartial, objective investigation. That is really the process, after which the Franklin County prosecutor will determine if there are sufficient grounds to levy charges against the three police shooters, and then the case will go to trial. There’s also a call for a coroner’s inquest after this particular investigation. It is simply not a credible investigation—I need to add that.

AMY GOODMAN: Why isn’t it credible?

FELIX VARGAS: It’s not credible because it involves a group of police officers, who are brothers in uniform of the perpetrators of the shooting. It is not credible because in the last six months we’ve had four incidents, including this one; in the three previous incidents, the police have been exonerated. There is one other example of a shooting here six months ago of a young man also who suffered from mental illness, as did Antonio Zambrano, and also suffered from substance abuse—similar circumstances, again, shot with excessive—by excessive use of force here by the police. There is an inherent conflict of interest here whenever you have a police organization investigating its own. We need a higher-level investigation here, and that can only come from the Department of Justice here, that the—you know, that the community can have some reasonable grounds to believe that it will be independent. So, it’s important that we have this.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And in terms of the general state of relations in your part of the state, there’s been, obviously, a growing population of Mexican, especially Mexican, population as a result of the large agriculture there in the area. Can you talk about the state of relations in Washington?

FELIX VARGAS: Well, the state of relations is really quite good. We do have a city of 68,000, 60 percent of which are Hispanic. They’re drawn here primarily because of our very vibrant agricultural economy that we have here. And we really haven’t had any incidents. There is some unease with the police, because they don’t have enough certified language speakers. It is a police made up primarily of Anglo policemen. So, the relations are cordial. I wouldn’t say they’re warm. We have, as an organization, tried to improve that relationship and to build confidence within the community towards the police force. We met with the police chief two weeks before the incident to review his policies and procedures and to assure ourselves that we will not have an incident similar to the one in Ferguson. We received assurances that the training, the protocols were all in place to avoid this kind of situation. We’re greatly disappointed, really, in the leadership of the police chief, because we simply do not know if he knows what goes on within his police force.

AMY GOODMAN: You are a leading member of the community, a businessman, former military. Are you calling for the police chief to step down?

FELIX VARGAS: Not at this point. You know, there are things that have happened which caused us to believe that he’s not in control of his police force. It’s premature to do that. I think we need to let certain investigatory practices proceed. We would like to see active engagement by the Department of Justice in this regard. While the police chief has, I think, some lack in credibility, we’re not prepared to call for his—for him to step down at this point. We may do so later on.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And we’re also joined by Jennifer Shaw, deputy director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington state and a member of the Community Police Commission in Seattle. She wrote a letter urging the Justice Department to launch an investigation into the shooting of Antonio Zambrano-Montes in Pasco, saying the local police probe was needlessly focusing on his activities prior to the incident. Could you—Jennifer, could you summarize your concerns for us?

JENNIFER SHAW: Well, sure, and thank you for reaching out to us. You know, we’re seeing across the country a real need for a culture change within our police departments. As Mr. Vargas points out, it is concerning to have police investigating their own, and particularly the notion of trying to find something wrong with the person that was shot as a justification for the shooting. We saw the same thing with Trayvon Martin. There was comments about he smoked pot. Other—you know, the comments about Michael Brown, that he had engaged in other criminal activity, at a time when the officer wasn’t even aware of it. So it’s really not relevant what the victim of the shooting was doing two weeks ago, or two weeks prior to the shooting, and to have that be what appears to be the primary focus is really concerning. It’s also concerning that the police officers that were involved in the shooting have still not been interviewed by the investigators.

AMY GOODMAN: And so, what needs to happen right now, Jennifer Shaw?

JENNIFER SHAW: Well, certainly, there needs to be a full and impartial investigation of this incident, but also there needs to be a review of the current policies and practices and training within the Pasco Police Department. What we’re seeing in Washington, and really across the country, is that police departments have been using outdated use-of-force policies. Their training is really much more focused on how to use force, not how to avoid using force. And so, tragically, we keep seeing these kinds of incidents.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to go back to Sergeant Ken Lattin of the Kennewick County Police Department answering questions during Thursday’s news conference.

REPORTER: Have you interviewed the three officers?

SGT. KEN LATTIN: Good question. So as we’ve—that seems to be a big question each week. And we’ve got to have all the information before they sit down with those, so they’ve got to get those transcriptions done, so that the lead investigator that will sit down and interview with the officers has all the information. So, that—we’re not to that point yet. It’s still being set up.

REPORTER: So all the other witnesses that you want to talk to would be interviewed first, all that material transcribed—

SGT. KEN LATTIN: Absolutely.

REPORTER: —and the three officers will be the last people you interview?

SGT. KEN LATTIN: Correct.

AMY GOODMAN: Jennifer Shaw, your comment on this? The witnesses will be interviewed first, and then the officers will be interviewed last.

JENNIFER SHAW: Well, when you think of any other investigation of a shooting by an individual, of another individual, with witnesses around, imagine that the police would wait 10 days, two weeks, before interviewing the person who was doing the shooting. It seems unreasonable. It seems, actually, kind of dangerous, for public safety purposes, to wait that long for the witnesses—or, for the officers to sit down and kind of read through everything and come up with a story. I mean, the idea of an investigation is to find out what happened from everybody that was involved. And it seems like these officers are being given special consideration because they’re police officers.

AMY GOODMAN: Jennifer Shaw, we want to thank you for joining us from the Washington ACLU in Seattle, and, Felix Vargas, for joining us from your home in Pasco, Washington, with Consejo Latino. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report, as we move on to our last segment. Juan?

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