Bad Cop Blotter

The Death of an Unarmed Homeless Mexican Immigrant Has Set Off Protests in Washington State

Antonio Zambrano-Montes was shot after throwing rocks and cars, but the cops are unlikely to face charges over his death.

by Lucy Steigerwald
Feb 23 2015, 5:20pm

Photo via Flickr user Loco Steve

This weekend, about 50 people protested the February 10 shooting of Antonio Zambrano-Montes in Pasco, Washington, by shutting down traffic on a bridge. Zambrano-Montes, a 35-year-old homeless Mexican immigrant who may have been mentally ill, was initially confronted by the cops after allegedly throwing rocks at police and passing cars, but he was otherwise unarmed and may have been fleeing when he was shot. The last moments of Zambrano-Montes's life were captured on cell-phone video by a 21-year-old college student named Dario Infante Zuniga.

Zuniga's recording certainly appears to show officers Ryan Flanagan, Adam Wright, and Adrian Alaniz firing at Zambrano-Montes right after he starts toward them before chasing him across the street and finishing him off. (The cops reportedly tried to use a stun gun, but it didn't work.)

Local officials have an explosive situation on their hands. Hispanics make up a majority of the population but are barely represented on the police force. And this incident represents the fourth police killing in the past year. But since Zambrano-Montes reportedly struck two officers with rocks—and had a history of bizarre confrontations with cops—the legal argument that he was a threat to life and limb is likely to carry the day in court.

Garner vs. Tennessee (1985) restricts the use of deadly force on a fleeing suspect, yet because Zambrano-Montes turned back the toward police right before the fatal shots, they might be deemed justified. Certainly, if the victim actually had a rock in hand at the time of death, that would help police argue that they had probable cause to see Zambrano-Montes as a threat. But how big does a rock have to be to constitute such a threat? How far away must the suspect be? There's a lot of gray area here, and no good reason to think the cops will be criminally punished.

In 2012, Officer Flanagan was involved in a $100,000 lawsuit against the Pasco police that alleged the cops there weren't properly trained in using force. All three officers are on paid leave pending the investigation into Zambrando-Montes's death. The victim's widow and children initially filed a $25 million lawsuit against the city, but have since withdrawn it.

Zunga has reportedly had his own dodgy encounters with police since uploading the video to YouTube. According to the Free Thought Project, Zunigas's home was visited by police, and his phone was taken without a search warrant. He also noted that cops dismissed him from the scene and didn't appear to be interested in taking statements from any of the numerous witnesses present at the time. He adds that police waited a week before they abruptly showed up at his door to demand his phone.

The county coroner in the Pasco case has reportedly called for an inquest into the shooting, which would empower six civilians to rule on the killing's legitimacy. But Franklin County Prosecutor Shawn Sant will have the final say on any possible criminal charges. Videos of excessive violence by law enforcement are a dime a dozen these days, but as cases like this one and Eric Garner's in New York show us, evidence and outrage aren't enough. Local cops won't hold back unless prosecutors hold their feet to the fire.

Being shamed on YouTube and social media is one thing; fearing the other side of a jail cell is quite another.

Now onto this week's bad cops:

-More ugly news from Washington state: On February 17, the King County prosecutor's office decided not to file charges against officer who shot an unarmed man 16 times while he lay in bed. In February 2012, Deputy Aaron Thompson and Corrections Officer Kristopher Rongen came to the home of Dustin Theoharis to search for another man who had violated his parole. According to Rogen, he and Thompson fired at Theoharis after the man said he had "three guns" and then reached under the mattress. Theoharis says he was shot after reaching for the identification he was asked to produce. He survived the barrage of bullets, and the county settled with him for $3 million. Now Theoharis is suing Rogen in federal court, and a judge has ruled that a jury trial can move forward. However, the fact that the DA's office has dismissed any potential criminal charges against the officers is still shameful.

-My former Reason colleague Jacob Sullum has a disturbing look at how the Department of Justice is still determined to prosecute medical marijuana cases— even in Washington state, where the drug is now legal for recreational use. The so-called Kettle Falls Five could receive up to ten years in prison thanks to federal mandatory minimums for the plants and the presence of (legal) firearms in the homes of the suspects. This shows that the war on drugs isn't really over until it ends at the federal level.

-Another day, another Edward Snowden–fueled revelation: this time, we learned that the National Security Agency (NSA) and British intelligence are in possession of SIM card encryption keys, which they stole from a cell phone manufacturer that sells to Verizon, AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and others. This makes spying on communications a breeze for the agencies.

-In Orlando, Florida, a February 19 local news investigation showed pharmacists rejecting legitimate prescriptions, blaming a 2010 crackdown on pain pills and, more recently, DEA intrusion. But DEA Assistant Special Agent Jeff Walsh told WESH that this is "an issue between the patient and the pharmacist, not the DEA," and that the "DEA has never exercised any punitive actions against a pharmacy or pharmacist unless their actions have been egregious and habitual." Considering the tricky nature of treating chronic pain with opiates, the DEA's suggesting legitimate dispensers have nothing to fear is patently false. The federal agency should at least take responsibility for scaring the shit out of medical professionals.

-The Washington Post has been on the Fairfax County, Virginia, police killing of John Geer ever since it happened a year and a half ago. Now the paper's editorial board has declared the shooting of the unarmed Geer—which happened while he was standing in his doorway with his hands raised—a "police cover-up." They make a compelling case for it.

-Our Good Cops of the Week rescued a man who fell into freezing water while attempting to save his dog. On Wednesday, Annapolis, Maryland, Police officers Joey Gatens, Chris Rajcsok, and Jeff Kelley responded to a 911 call from Vytas Penkiunas's wife, whose companion passed out as he tried to recover their Labrador Retriever. Gatens performed CPR on the dog, but the pooch didn't make it. Still, the three officers deserve our respect for risking their safety to retrieve a man who might have died without their aid.

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