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When a Salinas, California, man called 911 one night in July to report that his neighbor had pointed a small, black handgun at him, the caller added that the weapon might just be a BB gun, according to the Monterey County District Attorney. The cops were also aware that the Indigenous Mexican neighbor, later identified as 19-year-old Gerardo Martinez Chavez, may have been drinking or using drugs.
Just over 30 minutes later, an officer from the Salinas Police Department shot and killed Martinez Chavez, who’d pointed his BB gun at police.
A newly passed California law, the Deadly Force Accountability Act, requires the state Department of Justice to investigate fatal police shootings of unarmed civilians. But the agency declined to look into what happened to Martinez Chavez since the teen was holding a BB gun that both resembled a real weapon and was capable of inflicting harm.
“The neighbors told the police department it's not a gun, it's a BB gun. Even the 911 call had that,” said Cesar Lara, policy and program coordinator for the social justice organization Motivating Individual Leadership for Public Advancement (MILPA), which is helping the family navigate the aftermath of the shooting and speaking to the press on their behalf. “We're just concerned that he's not going to get justice and have a true review of the incident.”
Around 8 p.m. on July 16, 911 dispatchers received a call from Martinez Chavez’s neighbor, who said he’d been “attacked” and “vandalized” by the teen before, according to the DA.
“He pointed it at us, and he’s really drunk right now,” the neighbor said during the call, according to the DA. “I need an officer over here ASAP.”
Six minutes later, the first uniformed officer arrived on the scene, and at least three officers showed up shortly afterward, according to the DA. At 8:35 p.m., police positioned two marked cars near Martinez Chavez’s home, one of them 50 feet away. Officer Mario Reyes, who fired the shot that killed Martinez Chavez, positioned himself behind that car with a patrol rifle fixed toward the teen, according to the DA.
Police made several attempts to get a phone number for Martinez Chavez, who was holed up inside his house, but when they couldn’t obtain one, they used a drone to monitor him. The officers later tried to verbally command Martinez Chavez to come out with his hands up, but he didn’t comply as he likely didn’t understand, according to MILPA.
Police were trying to speak to him in Spanish, but the neighbors who called 911 told the officers on the scene that Martinez Chavez was not a Spanish speaker, according to MILPA. The organization says Martinez Chavez spoke the Indigenous Mexican language of Zapotec.
The DA’s account of the incident doesn’t mention the potential language barrier, and the police department did not confirm to VICE News that the neighbors communicated one to them. The Monterey County District Attorney’s Office told VICE News that their investigation into the fatal shooting is ongoing.
After entering and exiting the residence several times, Martinez Chavez reemerged from the home with the BB gun and a drink, according to the drone footage, which has no audio. After taking a sip and going back into the residence, Martinez Chavez exits the home once again and pantomimes shooting the BB gun in the direction of the cops. When Martinez Chavez exits the home a third time, once again aiming the BB gun toward officers, officer Reyes fires three shots from his rifle. One hit Martinez Chavez in the torso, and he died moments after being shot, according to the DA.
In theory, shootings like these are why the state passed the Deadly Force Accountability Act, one of a few efforts passed by the California state government last year to help hold police officers responsible for actions that result in death.
Under the new law, law enforcement agencies are supposed to report the shooting to the state DOJ. If the victim of the police shooting was unarmed by definition of the law, the state prosecutor then begins an investigation, collecting all relevant evidence involved. After doing its own analysis, the state DOJ prepares a conclusive written report of what happened, including recommendations of how department policies can be modified to prevent a similar incident if applicable, and finally, whether the officer involved should face criminal charges.
But the California DOJ told VICE News that Martinez Chavez’ shooting didn’t meet the law’s criteria, and the agency is, therefore, within its rights to decline investigating the shooting.
“The statute states that a ‘deadly weapon’ includes, but is not limited to, any loaded weapon from which a shot, readily capable of producing death or other serious physical injury, may be discharged,” a Salinas Police Department spokesperson said. “DOJ informed stakeholders statewide that a BB gun falls within this definition.”
The MILPA, which initially supported the bill’s passage earlier this month, argues that the state DOJ’s decision not to investigate minimizes numerous other issues with the fatal encounter.
“The intent of the law was that if there's a police involved shooting, it would remove the entities that are interconnected with each other and work with each other having the Department of Justice do it. It just makes sense,” Lara said. “It's sad that they decided that they wouldn't go forward with it, because there's a lot of unanswered questions in regards to de-escalation policies.”
For one, there may have been a language barrier.
“Coming from Salinas, we have a big Indigenous population,” said Airam Coronado, MILPA’s leadership assistant. “The Salinas Police Department, which gets 43% of the city’s budget, doesn't even have the proper interpreters for any of these indigenous languages.”
Salinas’ Indigenous population is mostly from Mexico and works in the hospitality and agricultural industry, according to MILPA. As of 2021, as many as 200,000 indigenous language–speaking farm workers and families live in the state, according to the LA Times.
The Salinas Police Department has also attracted federal attention. In 2016, the Department of Justice under President Barack Obama concluded in a report that the department had deficiencies in its use of force policies, its application of de-escalation tactics, and how it handles cases involving mental health. Since 2013, there’ve been nine fatal police shootings in Salinas, including a 16-year-old who was experiencing a mental health crisis in 2017 and a 20-year-old woman going through postpartum depression in 2019.
Martinez Chavez’s family has yet to confirm whether he had any mental health issues or if he was likely experiencing an episode at the time of the shooting.
But according to MILPA, the support that the Salinas PD was getting from the federal government went out the window when President Trump disbanded the office monitoring local police departments.
While the DOJ’s decision to not investigate the Martinez Chavez shooting is already final, MILPA says they want to lobby to change the new law for future cases involving shooting victims holding nonlethal firearms.
“As an organization, and as a network statewide, we need to start asking some questions, and maybe go to Sacramento and say we need to modify and update this law to be more inclusive and not have loopholes like this,” Lara said. “Revisiting the law to be more open and transparent to make sure that the community and those families involved really have a true sense of justice.”
On Saturday, the community held a march—both in Martinez Chavez’s memory and in the memory of the other eight people the community has lost to police violence—to demand justice and accountability.
For now, though, the organization is mostly focused on assisting the family.
“We’ve been checking in with them and seeing if there’s any areas of support they need,” Coronado said. “We’ve also been trying to connect them with people who can support them best.”
So far, a GoFundMe created to raise money for Martinez Chavez’s funeral costs has raised more than $16,000, a few hundred dollars short of its $17,000 goal. Lara told VICE News that the family plans to lay the 19-year-old to rest in the Mexican state of Oaxaca, where he’s from.
MILPA is also trying to retain an attorney to represent the family in an effort to pursue more evidence in the case, such as all related body camera footage.