Wounds remain a year after controversial Pasco police shooting (with video)

A year after videos of three police officers fatally shooting a distraught orchard worker circulated the globe and thrust Pasco into the national spotlight, concerns over whether city officials have done enough to prevent a similar tragedy still exist.

Several large rocks — similar to the ones Antonio Zambrano-Montes threw at police — surround weathered crosses at the spot on West Lewis Street where the Pasco man’s body collapsed onto concrete in a hail of police gunfire.

The memorial has remained outside Vinny’s Bakery & Cafe since soon after the Feb. 10, 2015, shooting — a reminder to all who pass never to forget.

Protests to honor Zambrano-Montes, 35, are planned at 4 p.m. on the anniversary of the shooting at the intersection where he died.

His death remains an emotionally charged issue in the community and a point of contention for activists seeking change. An intense debate continues about whether his life should have been spared, and if the justice system that acquitted the three officers of criminal charges was fair.

A year later, wounds remain. The police department says changes have been made, but critics say more are needed.

“We disagree with the silence from the city and county officials, who chose to ignore a very serious issue that this man was killed, excessively shot (at) 17 times for holding a rock,” said Nina Martinez, head of the Latino Civic Alliance, a statewide organization that has been outspoken about the shooting.

“Clearly the police department violated the the trust of the community. The wounds are still healing,” she said.

The case is far from over, despite Franklin County Prosecutor Shawn Sant’s decision not to file criminal charges against officers Ryan Flanagan, Adam Wright and Adrian Alaniz.

The family of Zambrano-Montes has filed two separate multimillion dollar lawsuits against the city.

Ongoing state and federal investigations and several reviews of the inner workings of the department are continuing. The county coroner wants an independent inquest, but county commissioners question paying for one because they say there’s no need.

And state legislation is in the works to change language in the law on use of deadly force, which would make it easier for prosecutors to criminally charge law enforcement officers.

The Department of Justice and the state Attorney General’s Office are conducting independent investigations into the shooting and Sant’s decision not file criminal charges.

It’s unknown when the agencies will issue their findings.

The Department of Justice, through the Washington, D.C.-based Police Executive Research Forum, is expected to release reviews of the Pasco Police Department, which likely will include recommendations for improvement. The state American Civil Liberties Union is also expected to release its own review of the department soon.

“We think there is still a lot of work to do in changing policies and practices in the department,” said Doug Honig, spokesman for the ACLU. “We are going to be providing a series of recommendations that we think we will help prevent excessive use of force in the future.”

From the perspective of Pasco police Chief Bob Metzger, his department and city officials faced one of the most controversial incidents in the history of the city. He calls the time the most trying of his career.

Metzger cleared the officers of any departmental violations through an internal investigation. Flanagan resigned before the findings, while Wright and Alaniz have returned to full-time duty.

The department drew heavy criticism locally, from state agencies and as far away as Mexico — Zambrano-Montes’ native country.

Some argued the department lacked critical incident and de-escalation training, had too few Spanish-speaking officers and wasn’t connected with the Pasco community, especially the large Latino population.

The department opened its doors to the Department of Justice and its Office of Community Orientated Policing Services, which aims to improve relationships between law enforcement agencies and citizens after major incidents.

Metzger told the Herald his department has taken numerous steps since the shooting to improve community relations through outreach, as well as address complaints about training and the number of Spanish-speaking officers.

The department will soon have 80 percent of its officers trained to handle critical incidents, which well surpasses state requirements, Metzger said. The department has also undergone procedural justice and other training offered by the Department of Justice.

The city started a bilingual civil service list, which allows the police department the opportunity to hire more Spanish-speaking officers, Metzger said. The department has increased the number of Spanish-speaking officers from 12 at the time of the shooting to 17.

And Metzger and his staff launched a social media campaign, which has been well received in the community.

“I don’t think there is a police department in the world that has 100 percent of people loving them ...,” Metzger said. “I think overall we have done a good job. We have reached out to people. We are reaching out to more people. We are certainly continuing the effort and not giving up.”

To improve community relations, the chief reached out to several leaders of area churches. He has met with the pastors, whom he calls his ears and eyes in the community, to try and build a unified front to tackle serious community problems, like mental illness and drug abuse.

The meetings have helped break down barriers not only in the population at large, but also in the faith community, some pastors said. The open dialogue between the police department and the pastors apparently has helped bring the community together.

“What an opportunity we have to have a chief that cares,” said Adelita Martinez, pastor at Assemblies of God Church in Kennewick, who also serves as the Pasco Police Department chaplain.

Martinez’ congregation includes part of the Zambrano family, she said.

“(Metzger) has let his heart out to all of us,” she said. “Things have gotten better.”

Although the department has taken steps to improve community relations and accepted help from the Department of Justice, some activists and agency leaders say it is not enough.

Felix Vargas, a retired Army colonel and head of the Pasco community group Consejo Latino, has listened to city officials talk about the increased social media presence, enhanced training and outreach efforts, he said.

However, Vargas, a former United States diplomat, says the strides the department has made are “moderate” and don’t address the key issues that led to the shooting.

The department needs to revise its policy manual, create a community advisory group appointed by the city and complete rigorous training on how to de-escalate crisis situations, he said.

“A year later, these issue remain outstanding. There is still this underlying concern and fear that this situation could yet again happen,” Vargas said. “Something did go wrong. Nationally set standards for policing were ignored and violated. We need to think seriously about how we correct these deficiencies.”

Tri-Cities Community Solutions, a group of activists formed after the shooting, has continued to protest Zambrano-Montes’ death and demand change from city officials.

Both Consejo Latino and Tri-Cities Community Solutions recently were honored with the Civil Libertarian Award from the ACLU for their response to the shooting.

Jeremy Peterson, a founding member of Tri-Cities Community Solutions, agrees with Vargas that the police department and city need to do more.

“They have done a lot of (public relations), like bringing cookies to people or driving someone from the press around in a cop car,” Peterson said. “That’s superficial. We need policy to change. We need things that demonstrate that they are receptive to the international attention that came when Antonio was killed.”

Despite differences of opinion on whether improvements have been made, both sides agree that there needs to be more attention and services focused on dealing with mental illness and drug addiction in the community.

The shooting helped bring to light the methamphetamine problem in the area and the effect it can have on someone in crisis, Metzger said.

Metzger and city officials hope state legislation could help improve services in the near future.

“When you add meth to mental illness, it’s a huge problem,” Metzger said. “There’s a real deficiency in terms of support services. As a police officer, what resources we have are very limited.”

The city plans to take a closer look at making additional improvements once reports for the Department of Justice and other agencies are issued, officials said. It’s possible, depending on recommendations, that policy changes within the police department could be made.

“A year later, we are not done with it yet,” said Mayor Matt Watkins. “We are waiting to see what comes out of that. I think you will see some more activity by council in particular.”

Tyler Richardson: 509-582-1556, @Ty_richardson

What’s next?

The Antonio Zambrano-Montes case is far from over.

Here’s what is left:

▪  Reviews by the U.S. Department of Justice and the state Attorney General’s Office.

▪  Report by the state American Civil Liberties Union.

▪  Two separate multi-million dollar lawsuits filed against the city of Pasco by members of Zambrano-Montes’ family.

▪  Possible inquest called by Franklin County Coroner Dan Blasdel.