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In Pasco, Washington, a Community Awaits Answers on Shooting

Image: Passers-by look at a bike adorned with trinkets and Mexican and the U.S. flags in Pasco, Washington
Passers-by look at a bike adorned with trinkets and Mexican and the U.S. flags in Pasco, Washington March 21, 2015 in remembrance of Antonio Zambrano-Montes who was shot dead by police after he allegedly pelted them with rocks. Reuters

Ben Patrick was parking his car when he stumbled onto a scene he says he wishes he had never witnessed. "I was with my family," said the Pasco, Washington, father of three. "I saw an officer struggling to control a man, and my first thought was to get out and somehow help the officer. But what I saw after that blew my mind."

"Several police officers arrived, guns drawn," Patrick said. "That man seemed to be running away — and then we heard gunshots and then he was dead."

That man Patrick was referring to was Antonio Zambrano-Montes, 35, who was shot and killed by Pasco police on February 10. Pasco police officers fired seventeen times on Zambrano, an undocumented immigrant from Mexico who was allegedly throwing rocks at passing cars.

Following the incident, there was a swift initial public outcry over Zambrano's death. Aside from national headlines, the case drew condemnation from the president of Mexico and the Mexican government, and some compared the incident to the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.

Three months after Zambrano's death, Pasco residents say they are still waiting for answers. They expressed frustration with what they say is an overly long investigation into the circumstances surrounding the events of February 10. Some residents are also concerned that the longer the investigation goes on, the more that public anger over Zambrano's death slowly gives way to apathy and indifference.

Felix Vargas of Consejo Latino, a local community group, said that he has been frustrated by the tone and pace of the investigation. "As far as visible progress, there is nothing being shared with us," he stated. "We have no sense of whether things are on hold or being wrapped up."

Pasco Police Department Chief Robert Metzger acknowledges that there are community members who have grown impatient with the pace of the investigation. "This community wants to see the end of this," he said to NBC News. "And I can't blame them. But the public is owed an investigation that correctly reviews all of the facts." One viral video of the incident, he notes, comprises only twenty seconds of Zambrano's encounter with the police.

The police chief stressed that a thorough investigation requires time. "I think the pace of the investigation is appropriate for its size," said Metzger. "There are 40 videos, 70 witnesses, and a lot of statements to get through. This report will be comprehensive, and you can't do that in a short amount of time. Justice is supposed to be thorough — not swift." The three officers involved in the shooting, who have been placed on paid leave, have been interviewed, he added.

In the aftermath of the shooting, a Special Investigative Unit, comprised of law enforcement officials from two neighboring towns, has been preparing a full report on the incident. And residents in this largely Latino city have continued to hold rallies and protest marches.

Four people were arrested at an April protest march, for allegedly blocking traffic. There were three arrests at a May march as well. But Chief Metzger praised the actions following the shooting.

"I am proud of our town," Chief Metzger said to NBC News. "I am proud of our protestors, they have demonstrated peacefully. It (Zambrano's death) was an unfortunate event, but our town has handled it extremely well."

But residents like Patrick still have questions about the way the case is being investigated. Following the incident, he was advised by a police officer to return home. "I thought they would want to take a statement there on the scene," he said, "But they threatened me with arrest if we didn't leave." Detectives came to his home later that night to speak with him and his wife, and seemed skeptical of their eyewitness accounts. "They stayed at our house less than ten minutes," Patrick said. Although he later allowed his children to give their testimony to a counselor, without police present, he has not been contacted by law enforcement officials or investigators since then.

"I just can't sit back and forget what I saw," Patrick said. "It still eats me up at times, when I am home."

Pastor Will Cain, of Havengrace Church, says he believes the community of Pasco is "disenchanted" with the way things have developed.

"I feel as though we are bracing for a result we are not going to be ready for," Pastor Cain said. "I don't think that there will be charges filed, or that there will be any consequences for the officers. I think the investigation will show that all those bullets were justified and that Antonio's death was unavoidable. And I don't believe that."

The Pasco city attorney recently gave the City Council an overview of what to expect as such an investigation proceeds. Once the Special Investigative Unit finishes its probe, there will be a coroner's inquest to determine the cause of death (many community activists believe that this step is unnecessary, given that Zambrano's death was captured on multiple videos). Then the county prosecutor will decide whether to bring charges against the officers involved. The prosecutor will also decide when the results from the report are made available to the public.

Consejo Latino is seeking a review of Pasco police training, practices, and procedures. But so far, Vargas said that he has been disappointed with the Department of Justice (DOJ). "We contrast what is going on with Pasco where we have a long process going on, a process we believe is not credible, versus Baltimore or Ferguson. We, sad to say, have been relegated to the back of the bus. We have not seen a proactive DOJ role here."

A federal mediator sent by the DOJ Community Relations Services has held two forums for Pasco residents, and a mediation session between community leaders is tentatively scheduled for June 3 — nearly four months after Zambrano's death.

"When we look at what is happening in other cities," Vargas said, "it makes us feel like we are not a priority for the DOJ, and that is very sad." He is concerned about the impartiality of the Special Investigation Unit examining the Zambrano case, because he believes these officers have personal and professional ties to Pasco police. In Pasco's last three cases of police officers using lethal force, Vargas notes, all of the officers involved were exonerated.

Another Pasco resident, Eddie Enriquez, expressed his concern for overall public safety. "The police shot 17 times at Mr. Zambrano, at a busy intersection, on a sidewalk, with lots of people watching on the street and from their cars. Those bullets could have hit someone else, or ricocheted off a building and killed another person. That was reckless and excessive," said Enriquez, who was one of the protesters arrested for blocking traffic at a rally. He worries that now some Pasco residents feel that they have to "watch their backs" whenever they interact with the police.

Still, Pastor Will Cain remains hopeful for a just outcome from the investigation into Zambrano's death. "I think that if something is not done, it is simply going to lend itself to powder keg that will explode someday. My prayer and my hope is that city will be more forthcoming with the investigation and more forthcoming with better policies and training for police officers. I mean, look at Baltimore: people were throwing rocks and bottles at police — no one shot them!"

"We have really good people here that want Pasco to become a more caring community," said Pastor Cain. "In the future, I don't know what is going to happen. But I am ... prayerful. I have incredible hope for Pasco, and I believe in this community."

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