Cultural awareness training for police. Bilingual communication from local government officials. Accountability of money available for mental health services. Respect for everyone, regardless of legal or socioeconomic status.
About 75 Pasco community members and activists weren’t shy Saturday in sharing their priorities for improving dialogue and relations between the city and its Hispanic population during the second day of a community forum with the Washington State Commission on Hispanic Affairs.
Law enforcement and government officials also outlined the various investigations and reviews in the wake of the Feb. 10 police shooting of Antonio Zambrano-Montes.
Officials say police fired at him 17 times after he threw at least one rock at officers on Lewis Street across from Fiesta Foods.
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The meeting at Columbia Basin College in Pasco was heated at times, with attendees repeating sentiments shared during the Friday session that they don’t feel safe in Pasco because of the police. Some said city and police leaders have shown they are reticent to make changes.
“Before any of these ideas can be implemented, somebody has to admit there’s a need to implement them,” one man said.
But there was a sense of guarded optimism after the meeting adjourned.
“I think great things are coming out of this and we are moving forward,” said Dora of Pasco, who declined to give her last name.
State commissioners and Knight Sor from the U.S. Department of Justice’s Seattle office emphasized that they weren’t in Pasco to take over local government or enforce their own plan to heal the community following Zambrano-Montes’ death.
Rather, they said, Saturday’s sessions were an attempt to start a dialogue between residents, police and city officials.
“This incident that happened in Pasco, the solution has to come from here, not outsiders,” Sor said.
Many community members noted that there needs to be more services for the Hispanic population and the mentally ill — services local government either has the means to offer but doesn’t, has cut in recent years or is reluctant to provide.
Benton and Franklin counties have among the lowest level of mental health care funding in the state, some said, but others noted that local governments still receive tens of millions of dollars for it and aren’t being held accountable.
Despite having a population that is 60 percent Hispanic, very little communication from the city of Pasco and its departments is available in Spanish, some said. The city eliminated bilingual communications services years ago, one man said, and the only interpreters in local government offices are cashiers who collect money from residents for various departments.
“It’s very sad our Spanish-speaking community isn’t getting the information translated directly into Spanish by officials,” Dora told the commission.
Fear of the police, particularly by the poor and undocumented immigrants, has contributed to many of the community’s problems, some said.
Law enforcement needs to see itself as part of the community rather than separate from it, several speakers said.
That includes offering opportunities for people to understand them through citizen police academies to knowing citizens on their own terms, talking with them on the street and not just sitting in a patrol car, waiting for a call.
“I want the Barney Fifes to come back. I don’t want Terminators, I don’t want Robocops,” said Leo Perales of Kennewick.
Not everyone said the problem is with law enforcement, though. A 74-year-old retired Hispanic educator, speaking in Spanish and English, told the commission he’s never had a problem with police.
However, he is afraid to go to downtown Pasco because of Hispanic gang members, a comment that drew heavy criticism from others in the meeting.
“The biggest problem that exists is we don’t have respect,” the man said. “There’s no respect for the law.”
City, police and justice leaders said they were glad to hear from community members.
However, they and the commission emphasized that they have to follow proper procedures and that each one — the criminal investigation of the shooting, a coroner’s inquest into Zambrano-Montes’ death and the internal review by the Pasco Police Department — has its own course and potential consequences.
“We can’t trample them,” said City Manager Dave Zabell of calls to discipline the three officers involved in the shooting. “We’ll make things worse if we just go out and fire people without an investigation.”
The commission has formerly requested an extension of its efforts in Pasco and plans to work with area churches to reach out to undocumented workers like Zambrano-Montes who have yet to come forward with their concerns.
Some at the meeting noted that it’s likely a long road the community has set out on to heal itself and restore trust.
“This is not going to be ended by one or two meetings,” said Felix Vargas of Consejo Latino.
That didn’t diminish feelings of progress, though. A few attendees said they were glad government officials were taking part in the process and that everything was being put on the table.
“I just hope this makes us stronger,” Perales said.