A state agency wants to help Pasco start healing in the wake of a fatal officer-involved shooting by initiating dialogue between the community and city leaders.
A public forum to be held March 27 and 28 will give people an opportunity to voice their feelings, while also connecting them with area advocacy groups and available resources or assistance.
The Washington State Commission on Hispanic Affairs has invited a number of elected and appointed officials from Pasco, Franklin County, the state and federal government.
However, Chairwoman Gloria Ochoa cautions that for the most part the officials will be there in a listening capacity to get a better understanding of the community’s concerns and what should be done to move forward.
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“We’re looking at the (Antonio) Zambrano-Montes case as a symptom of other systemic issues the community is concerned about,” including law enforcement relationships, Ochoa told the Herald.
“Other communities have been able to take a bad situation and turn it around when people are willing to come to the table and start that dialogue,” added Ochoa, a graduate of Pasco High, Columbia Basin College and Washington State University Tri-Cities. She moved to Spokane County six years ago. “We really want to provide the resources to empower the community.”
Zambrano-Montes, 35, was shot at 17 times by three Pasco officers after police say he threw at least one rock in their direction. The Mexican national, who was an orchard worker in the Mid-Columbia, died Feb. 10 on the sidewalk on Lewis Street across from Fiesta Foods.
A law enforcement team called the Tri-City Special Investigations Unit is reviewing the shooting. Their investigation is expected to take a few more weeks.
Franklin County Coroner Dan Blasdel will oversee an inquest, possibly in May, which allows a jury of six civilians to determine the cause and manner of death and if the shooting was justified.
Then, Franklin County Prosecutor Shawn Sant will decide if the officers should be held criminally responsible.
Since the shooting, a group called Tri-Cities Community Solutions has held weekly rallies and attended Pasco City Council meetings hoping to get on the agenda so they can have an open discussion with city leaders.
They are part of the reason, along with Consejo Latino led by Felix Vargas, why the Commission on Hispanic Affairs made these plans.
The public forum is scheduled from 6-9 p.m. Friday and 9 a.m. to noon Saturday at the Byron Gjerde Center on Columbia Basin College’s Pasco campus, 2600 N. 20th Ave.
There is an agenda for both days.
Sant is scheduled to address the audience for 50 minutes on Friday, both with an update on the investigation and to answer any questions.
The agenda shows a public comment period of 55 minutes Friday and two hours Saturday.
Ochoa said they have firm ground rules because of the commission’s experience with things getting emotionally charged. A person will have three minutes to speak and all questions or comments must be addressed to the board.
Saturday starts with two simultaneous one-hour sessions — one about community and advocacy groups and the other on community and local, state and federal agencies — followed by open dialogue about the next steps to take.
Security will be on site for safety reasons, though Ochoa said it is expected to be a peaceful event.
The Commission on Hispanic Affairs is a nonpartisan committee appointed by the governor. Under state law, the board advises the governor’s office, legislators and anybody in a leadership position about decisions that impact the Latino community, whether positive or negative.
Ochoa wanted to be clear they are not a lobbying group and don’t litigate against anyone. The commission often will organize forums in communities where residents and leaders are not connecting and support conversations to resolve problems, build trust and begin the healing process.
The Tri-City area usually is represented on the state board, particularly given Pasco’s high Latino population, but Ochoa said the commissioner had to resign for work reasons and the position has not been filled yet.
Ochoa and her fellow board members took the initiative to schedule the listening session after seeing what’s been going on in Pasco over the past six weeks, she said. All but two of the commissioners will be in Pasco this week, along with Executive Director Uriel Iñiguez.
U.S. Attorney Michael Ormsby of the Eastern District of Washington is expected to be at the public forum, in addition to Pasco City Manager Dave Zabell and Pasco Police Chief Bob Metzger.
Zabell pointed out at the Monday night council meeting that this is a listening session, so they will not be talking about city business.
Council members Rebecca Francik, Saul Martinez and Al Yenney all indicated they plan to be at the forum. Mayor Matt Watkins said he has a funeral to attend.
“There’s a wide gap between the dots right now, in terms of the facts that are out there. We’re going to know more information on the case as it is released,” Zabell told the Herald.
Zabell said after talking to Ochoa, he was pleased to hear this is the first of several meetings,so it will give elected and appointed officials the opportunity to hear the comments now and respond later.
“I believe it’s healthy for the community to have these kinds of discussion,” he said.
The forum is not connected to the U.S. Department of Justice’s recent announcement it will mediate talks between Pasco police and community members.
The DOJ’s Community Relations Service division focuses on peace efforts in communities in conflict over social rights issues.
That meeting, planned for April 2, will be held behind closed doors and involve confidentiality agreements so participants don’t share what was discussed.