The iconic Norman Rockwell painting of a state trooper sitting next to a young boy as he contemplates running away hangs on a wall in the back of Pasco police Chief Bob Metzger’s office.
To the longtime cop, it’s more than a piece of art.
“To me, it exemplifies what I got into police work for,” the chief said. “That is to help people.”
That same picture has recently been recreated to show an officer in full riot gear, a gas mask covering his face, staring down at a scared black child. It reflects the sentiment of some across the nation that police are not fostering peace in the communities they serve.
That perception has been fueled by recent fatal police shootings across America, including one last month in Pasco that led to the death of Antonio Zambrano-Montes. The orchard worker was shot several times after police say he threw a rock at three officers.
The entire Pasco Police Department has come under fire since the Feb. 10 shooting. Community members and the state American Civil Liberties Union want the department to be federally investigated. Many have called for the officers to be criminally charged.
“The community’s trust in its police department has been seriously shaken,” Jennifer Shaw, ACLU deputy director, wrote in a letter to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder.
But Metzger and others on the force are adamant their relationship with the community remains strong and that Pasco can be a model for success for other cities facing similar turmoil.
Metzger spoke with the Herald about the national spotlight on the force, the perceived divide in the Pasco community and a possible federal review in the wake of one of the biggest law enforcement controversies in Tri-City history.
Federal review welcome
While the chief doesn’t feel a review is necessary, Metzger would welcome federal authorities, he said. Metzger defended his department, saying federal officials will find an efficiently run organization with well-trained officers and accredited policies and procedures.
Metzger has been in contact with officials from the FBI and the U.S. Department of Justice, he said. He has had an open conversation with officials at the ACLU and will take their suggestions into consideration.
“At the end of the day when everything is looked at and discussed — and the department is reviewed by I’m sure DOJ and others — I think a lot of people will realize this department is not only being run well but it’s put together well,” he said.
People in the community and across the nation have been critical of the department for its use of deadly force in the Zambrano-Montes case and other police shootings in the city. And many have called for more advanced officer training.
A Pasco officer averages 130 hours of training annually, well above the state standard of 24 hours a year, said Pasco training Sgt. James Vaught. That training includes crisis intervention, non-lethal force tactics and how to deescalate situations.
“We probably do as much training as anybody in the state,” Vaught said. “We are always trying to improve our training constantly.”
Video of the Zambrano-Montes encounter shows three officers chasing the Pasco man across an intersection and shooting him in front of a cafe on Lewis Street across from Fiesta Foods. A total of 17 shots were fired.
Zambrano-Montes, a 35-year-old Mexican national, was not carrying a gun or knife. A rock was found near his body.
A racial divide?
Metzger, who has been chief since 2011, dismissed the notion that there is a divide between the police force and the Pasco community, especially the large Hispanic population. He says police in the city have partnered with citizens over the past two decades to help reduce crime. Officials say the crime rate in the city has dropped more than 80 percent since 1990.
A handful of community leaders have spoken out against the police force, saying it needs to develop better relations with the Hispanic community. Consejo Latino, a community group made up of primarily Hispanics, and its chairman Felix Vargas have called for systemic changes within the department.
Metzger says the feedback people give cops on the street is that they still trust the department, even if they don’t agree with the three officers’ actions that day.
“We have done a lot over the last 20 years to improve that relationship. To say one incident changes all of that, I would say I respectfully disagree,” he said. “We have built that relationship. Can it be improved? It can always be improved.”
Sgt. Rodrigo Pruneda is the highest ranking Spanish-speaking officer in the department. His father immigrated to the area from Mexico in the 1960s and was a farm worker. Pruneda, who was the on-duty commander the night of the shooting, says he has immersed himself in the Hispanic community in his daily work on the city’s streets.
The sergeant is one of 14 Hispanic and 12 bilingual officers in the 71-person department. That number of Hispanic and bilingual officers is the most of any police department in the Tri-Cities.
Pruneda’s voice cracked and he fought back tears as he talked about the idea that the relationship between police and the Hispanic community was broken. He said the people who portray that notion are not truly invested in or connected to the community.
“It drives me crazy when they say there is a divide. There is no divide. I have been here for 11 years. It isn’t there,” Pruneda said. “How come it hasn’t been reported before? All of a sudden there is a shooting and there is a divide.”
Gabriel Portugal, a retired educator and longtime Pasco resident, says that while opinions differ in the community, a majority of area Hispanics still trust police. The radio host and community advocate said local people have not made the shooting a race issue, which has helped quell potential violence.
“They want to compare this with Ferguson and I think that is totally inappropriate. This is not Ferguson,” said Portugal, a recent member of Consejo Latino. “That needs to be clear. We have our own issues and our own people to deal with.”
Ferguson, Mo., a predominately black city in St. Louis County, has experienced sometimes violent protests and looting following the shooting of unarmed black teen Michael Brown by a white police officer. This week two police officers were shot in the city during protests after the police chief resigned.
Criticism taking a toll
The outside pressure and intense criticism from as far away as Mexico has taken its toll on the Pasco department, Metzger said. However, officers remain upbeat and haven’t encountered problems as they patrol the streets.
In fact, Metzger said the support from the community has been strong and lifted the spirits of many within the department.
Despite ongoing protests since the shooting, no local business have been damaged and no arrests reported. A local contingent of dedicated protestors rally daily in the shadow of Metzger’s office at City Hall.
The shooting is being investigated by a team of local police called the Tri-City Special Investigations Unit. Their investigation is expected to be done within weeks. Franklin County Prosecutor Shawn Sant will review the investigation and decide if criminal charges should be filed against the officers.
The chief says the community has shown great restraint and the feeling he gets is people are willing to let the investigation process play out.
“I feel that our community is coming together. We are going to review a lot of things,” Metzger said. “Obviously this isn’t something that you are just not concerned about. At the end of the day we will come out as a better department and a better community because of it.”
When Metzger first viewed graphic cellphone videos of the shooting, he knew right away that the actions of the police officers would be questioned, he said. He began to prepare himself for the backlash and knew his department faced a long ordeal.
“I realized it was going to go viral very, very quickly,” he said. “And there was no way for us to stop it.”
The reactions to the videos nationwide have left officers Ryan Flanagan, Adam Wright and Adrian Alaniz shaken, Metzger said. They are concerned for their safety as well as their families. Some have left the area while on paid leave.
A person posted an address supposedly belonging to one of the officers on Facebook, Metzger said. But the address turned out to be the officer’s relative. It was quickly taken down.
Metzger says he supports the officers as people and will wait until the facts of the investigation are revealed before making any judgments. There also will be an internal review of the shooting.
“They feel very isolated because while everybody else is saying things about them, they can’t say anything themselves,” Metzger said. “I think that’s got to be bothering them.”