Lawyers for the family of a Pasco man fatally shot by police during a rock-throwing confrontation are questioning whether a review of the incident by a New Hampshire agency was independent.
Police Chief Bob Metzger announced this week that an internal investigation by Pasco police officials into the February shooting of Antonio Zambrano-Montes, 35, showed the three officers involved did not violate department policy.
The city also released a report from the Police Policy Studies Council, a New Hampshire research company that specializes in reviewing incidents involving police officers and the use of force.
The report, written by the company’s executive director, Thomas J. Aveni, agreed with Pasco police officials that the officers were justified in using deadly force and no department policies were violated.
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It is the first review of the shooting from an agency outside of the Tri-Cities to be released publicly.
Aveni reviewed thousands of pages of evidence and videos of the shooting. He reportedly had no contact with Metzger or city officials while the review was ongoing.
The city of Pasco handpicked Aveni, a former cop, and paid him between $4,000 and $5,000 for his opinion on the case, said Dave Zabell, city manager.
Seattle-area attorney Charles Herrmann, who represents the parents of Zambrano-Montes in a civil case against Pasco, raised concerns about whether the report could be truly independent due to the financial agreement between the city and Aveni.
Herrmann said Aveni’s report is another example of the city’s attempts to build a defense for the three officers.
“My objection is that (city officials) have the pretense of being impartial, independent, unbiased as though these were really truly neutral fact findings,” he said. “They are not. They just are not.”
Yakima attorney George P. Trejo Jr, who represents the widow and two daughters of Zambrano-Montes, said Aveni’s report was nothing more than a “rubber stamp” on an already biased investigation.
“There’s an inherent conflict of interest for the city to pick their own agency and pay this agency for a determination on whether (city employees) acted appropriately,” Trejo said.
Officers Adam Wright and Adrian Alaniz were allowed to return to the force this week. The other officer involved in the shooting, Ryan Flanagan, resigned from the department in July. They were cleared earlier this month of criminal charges by Franklin County Prosecutor Shawn Sant. The state Attorney General’s Office is reviewing Sant’s decision at request of Gov. Jay Inslee.
Officials say the internal investigation couldn’t begin until Sant’s review of the case came to an end.
City officials decided to look at hiring an outside agency to review the shooting due to the complexity of the case and the criticism it drew from around the nation, Zabell said. They also wanted to try to provide a sense of transparency.
Hiring an outside agency for a second opinion in an internal investigation is uncommon, Zabell said.
The city sought a company with a track record for reviewing national police shootings and an investigator with a respected reputation for objectivity, Zabell said. Officials also wanted someone who has been critical of police officers’ actions in use-of-force situations.
On the advice of a city attorney, Zabell said, officials chose Aveni and the Police Policy Studies Council.
“We felt this would increase our confidence in the overall process and that of the community,” he said.
Aveni’s report determined officers killed Zambrano-Montes only after issuing verbal commands to surrender and firing Tasers, which were ineffective. And that Zambrano-Montes posed a potential deadly threat.
Zambrano-Montes was high on methamphetamine and throwing rocks at officers during the confrontation. Witnesses and police reported Zambrano-Montes told officers to shoot him.
Aveni also praised the special investigation into the shooting, the police department’s policies and procedures, and the department’s apparent commitment to do everything possible to maintain public trust.
“The officers only resorted to the use of deadly force when all other measures failed, and in response to both immediate and imminent threats of serious harm to themselves and members of the public,” Aveni wrote in the report.
Aveni told the Herald his company has reviewed hundreds of police shootings nationwide and a range of other incidents involving police officers. About 20 percent of the company’s case load comes from referrals from district attorneys, prosecutors or civil attorneys, he said.
Aveni declined to discuss specifics of the Zambrano-Montes shooting. He estimated that findings in about 15 to 20 percent of the cases his company has reviewed have not sided with police departments.
The expert police trainer disagreed with criticism that those connected to law enforcement should not investigate major police incidents.
“I don’t know who you would get to investigate police use of force (other than) people within the profession,” he said.
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