Franklin County Coroner Dan Blasdel announced Friday that he plans to call for an inquest into the death of Antonio Zambrano-Montes, who was shot by three Pasco police officers earlier this week.
A jury of six civilians would decide the cause and manner of death in the case, as well as whether the shooting was justified.
Franklin County Prosecutor Shawn Sant would review the jury’s decision and ultimately decide if the shooting is justified. If he finds the officers acted recklessly, they could be held criminally responsible.
A coroner’s inquest is rare. Blasdel has only requested two during his more than 20 years as coroner, he said. It will have to wait at least several weeks, until investigators complete their initial probe.
An inquest could mean fewer details about the shooting will be released even after the investigation is complete, Sant said.
“If the decision is made by the coroner to go forward with (the inquest), we certainly would want to limit the amount of details we release prior to that so we don’t end up losing a potential jury pool,” Sant said.
A forensic pathologist performed an autopsy Friday, and the death has been ruled a homicide. Blasdel explained the ruling means only that Zambrano-Montes was killed by someone else.
Officials called a news conference Friday to talk about the investigation into the shooting, which will be conducted by the Tri-City Special Investigations Unit, a 15-member team primarily comprising of police officers from four local departments. It includes no one from Pasco.
Few details were released. Officials did confirm Zambrano-Montes, 35, was not carrying a knife or gun when he was chased down and shot following a confrontation in a busy intersection. He might only have been armed with a rock.
Sant and Kennewick police Sgt. Ken Lattin said there are at least 40 witnesses in the case and investigators are in the process of interviewing them.
Lattin, as spokesperson for the special unit, said detectives have not yet interviewed the officers involved in the shooting — Ryan Flanagan, Adam Wright and Adrian Alaniz.
Officials are confident local police can investigate the shooting thoroughly and impartially, Lattin said. He assured reporters from across the state that the investigation will be comprehensive and in-depth.
The FBI has contacted local police and is monitoring the investigation, though no federal law enforcement officials are involved.
“We are going to create an unbiased and factual report that does not cover up any information, because our jobs are on the line here as well,” Lattin said. “We are not going to put something in there that is not truthful, that is not accurate, to cover up for somebody.”
Members of Zambrano-Montes’ family were at the news conference and plan to attend an anti-police brutality rally scheduled for noon Saturday at Volunteer Park in Pasco.
Family members met with a lawyer following the meeting and they are considering suing the city, said Felix Vargas, who is advising the family. Zambrano-Montes’ widow already has filed a $25 million claim against the city.
Vargas, chair of Consejo Latino, a primarily Hispanic community group, will request on behalf of the family that a federal agency look into the shooting.
The past three days have taken a toll on family members, though they are trying to stay strong to ensure the protests are peaceful, Vargas said.
“They want answers. They’re very emotionally fatigued,” he said. “They are remarkably resilient people. They are holding up.”
Pasco Police Chief Bob Metzger has spoken with the family several times during the week, he said. He told the Herald he feels the talks were productive and a step in the right direction.
Metzger is now preparing his department and the city to deal with Saturday’s rally and his main concern is keeping the city safe.
“Right now our concern is the immediate need we have to keep a lid on things to keep things from getting violent and to keep businesses from getting damaged,” he said.
The rally is expected to bring hundreds of people, if not more, to Pasco to protest the latest deadly shooting at the hands of local police. There have been four fatal shootings involving police officers in Pasco alone in the last six months. Another fatal police shooting took place in Kennewick in June.
The latest shooting, which happened after police say Zambrano-Montes threw at least one rock at officers, has led to outrage from the Pasco community and sparked ongoing protests all week. Demonstrators have been at City Hall every day since the shooting and at the spot where Zambrano-Montes died.
Local community leaders have denounced the shooting and the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington called it “very disturbing.” Gov. Jay Inslee has called for an in-depth investigation.
Dr. Matthew Hickman, an associate professor at Seattle University and an expert in use of force in law enforcement, told the Herald officers need to consider the threat posed by a suspect, the severity of the offense, and if the suspect is resisting or fleeing when deciding whether to use deadly force.
One of the major problems with the use of deadly force nationwide is that there is no national data to track how often it occurs, Hickman said.
“It’s glaring and embarrassing for the nation that we can’t answer that simple question,” he said.
About 30 community members came together Friday evening for a vigil at Ephesus Seventh-day Adventist Church in east Pasco to pray for the family of Zambrano-Montes, the Pasco Police Department and the community as a whole.
Pastor Terrance Taylor said they felt called to pray for all involved. “We are not taking sides,” he said.
Violence around the country against citizens has seemed far away, but now it’s happened here, said Pastor Wayne Jenkins of New Hope Missionary Baptist Church of Pasco.
There needs to be a dialogue about the sacredness of life, Jenkins said. Everyone deserves life, freedom and happiness. He feels the need to pray that the Tri-Cities could become a united community regardless of faith, color and creed.
“We have to stand up against violence and we have to at some point address behavior on both sides,” Jenkins said.