One of the most outspoken Hispanic leaders calling for a federal investigation of the fatal police shooting of Antonio Zambrano Montes in Pasco, Wash., is taking the community’s fight to Capitol Hill.
Felix Vargas, chairman of Consejo Latino, has meetings planned Thursday and Friday with U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and U.S. Department of Justice officials.
Supporters for the police officers involved in the February shooting said calls for a federal investigation were premature considering a special multi-agency investigation was already underway in the state.
Vargas plans to cite last week’s Department of Justice report on the Ferguson, Mo., police department's systemic discrimination as a reason to conduct a Pasco investigation. A Ferguson officer was cleared of wrongdoing in the killing of unarmed resident Michael Brown last summer, but the findings in the separate report about the troubled Missouri department resonate in southeast Washington state, Vargas said. Those findings include that the Ferguson Police Department practiced racially biased enforcement and that it used unnecessary force on people with mental health issues.
“It’s something that is worth looking into here,” Vargas said in a telephone interview before his cross-country flight.
Vargas doesn’t contend the Pasco shooting was racially motivated, but he thinks it’s a matter for the Justice Department to pursue.
Sen. Murray has helped Pasco leaders over the past month coordinate meetings with U.S. Attorney Michael Ormsby in Spokane. She said in a statement Wednesday that she’d urged the U.S. attorney and the Justice Department to monitor the case closely.
“As facts continue to come in, I will be pushing to make sure this is being investigated fully and properly and that appropriate actions are taken to prevent tragedies like these from happening again,” she said.
On Feb. 10, Pasco police responded to a complaint of a man throwing rocks at cars. They found Zambrano, 35. They commanded him to stop, but he wouldn’t. A stun gun didn’t stop him. He ran.
A 20-second video posted on YouTube captured the final moments of Zambrano’s life. It shows officers with their guns drawn chasing the Mexican national across a busy intersection. Zambrano appears to wave or flail his arms. When he turns back toward the police, the officers shoot.
The three officers involved in the shooting have been placed on paid leave as a special investigations team from neighboring communities looks into the case.
Vargas doesn’t think the investigation by the multi-agency Tri-City Special Investigations Unit has any credibility. In his letter to the Justice Department, he notes that the unit exonerated officers in three recently completed reviews of police shootings.
“Why would anyone believe that the local SIU investigation of the Zambrano killing will yield a different result?” Vargas wrote in a Feb. 16 letter to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder.
Chief Bob Metzger of the Pasco Police Department said Wednesday that he welcomed a federal investigation. He said he’d been in touch with the Department of Justice and the U.S. attorney. He’s already shared files withe the FBI, which he said was monitoring the case.
But Metzger defended the Tri-City Special Investigations Unit. He said the officers involved wouldn’t jeopardize their careers by skewing the investigation or presenting anything other than facts to prosecutors.
Metzger has stopped short of saying whether the officers who killed Zambrano acted appropriately. He also wants justice, he said, but he emphasized his belief that the shooting was not racially motivated. He’s had several conversations with family members of Zambrano’s who’ve told him they also don’t think it’s racially motivated, he said.
“I wish that people would let this investigation take its course,” Metzger said in an interview. “Unfortunately, what Mr. Vargas is doing is stirring up passions that don’t necessarily need to be stirred up at this time. Because we don’t know what the end result is. Officers are people, too. They have First Amendment rights and all the rights that everyone else has.”
Metzger and Chuck Canterbury, national president of the Fraternal Order of Police, said it was wrong to make comparisons with the Ferguson investigation, which Canterbury described as politically motivated. Canterbury, who’s based in D.C., said the Tri-City Special Investigations Unit was in line with recommendations outlined by a March White House task force on police shootings.
The task force made 63 recommendations, including using outside prosecutors or a multi-agency probe or referring the investigation to a neighboring jurisdiction.
“In order to restore and maintain trust, this independence is crucial,” the report says.