Police in Pasco, Washington, executed a man on the street this past Tuesday, February 10th. I generally don’t like using such inflammatory language, especially given the current climate of relations in urban (and suburban) America between citizens and police forces.
But an execution it was.
35-year-old Antonio Zambrano-Montes, an orchard worker and Mexican national, was confronted by police at an intersection around 5 PM. He was allegedly throwing rocks at cars, and when police arrived on the scene, he started throwing rocks at them, as well. During the confrontation, Mr. Montes continued throwing rocks, even when ordered to stop, and was eventually Tasered. According to police, the Taser had no effect.
It was at this point that the video footage starts. This was occuring at a busy intersection during rush hour, and more than one cell phone camera was trained on the confrontation, recording video. What can be seen on multiple video clips is Montes running across the intersection, with at least three uniformed cops in pursuit. Montes runs alongside a building, turns around with his hands waving, albeit clearly empty, while still moving away from the police. At a distance of maybe 15 feet, multiple shots ring out, and the man falls over. I’m posting a link from Youtube here. It is graphic and does show a man being shot to death. If you don’t want to see it, don’t start the video.
The fact that there is video of this slaying should make it easier to bring justice for Montes. Of course, there was video of Eric Garner’s murder. Even that isn’t enough for some prosecutors.
There was absolutely no reason to believe the man was a mortal threat to the armed police. He was obviously unarmed, fleeing, and had clearly ceased throwing rocks. The police had distance on the man, and there were no passerby within any sort of attack range. It’s possible the police “merely” panicked, and didn’t shoot out of aggression and/or anger. But it doesn’t matter. This was murder.
Police in America generally carry sidearms. They frequently have access to shotguns in their vehicles, as well as automatic rifles for certain situations. They also usually carry batons, pepper spray, and electrical weapons such as Tasers. They are trained to use both lethal and non-lethal force. It is largely understood that in certain instances, police may need to fire their guns. And yes, they may have to kill someone. This is not always unreasonable. However, there are many circumstances in which lethal force isn’t necessary, where lives aren’t in danger.
I have worked with police before. I have been in situations where confrontations got physical. I have been in what amounted to fist fights with criminals, while working alongside police. And rarely were guns drawn. Almost always, words were used first. But when words failed, and the suspect was unarmed, the police kept the conflict hand-to-hand. To me, this made sense. The police were trained for that kind of thing. Life must be protected, not threatened. It was always better to grapple, and maybe throw a punch, than to shoot someone.
Many police do their best to avoid pulling their weapons. Most don’t want to take a life. And yet, far too often, events like this occur. Michael Brown was shot last year in Ferguson, Missouri. Eric Garner was choked into a heart attack in New York. In both situations, the police were not convicted of wrongdoing. And yet, something terribly wrong happened. An unarmed man died at the hands of people hired to protect them. And those two incidents were merely the tip of the iceberg.
People being shot to death by police is not something new. It’s actually not something that has gotten worse, statistically. However, 90% of the population now has a high resolution video camera in their pocket at all times, and instant access to the internet. It’s much easier for news of police brutality to spread. It’s easier to shed light on abuse by law enforcement. And that’s a tool we need to take advantage of. We shouldn’t be afraid of police. Cops are supposed to prevent and respond to crime, not carry it out.
This hideous atrocity in Washington is yet one more example of police exceeding the amount of force needed for a given situation. In no way was Montes placing any of the three cops in mortal danger. This has been visually documented by more than one person. He was quickly backing away with empty hands. He was clearly not in his right mind, and going to be a handful, but three on one, with weapons – this was murder. It may not have been malicious. Who knows? An investigation will help. But three armed people with legal authority, shot down an unarmed man in view of dozens, if not hundreds of people. That means something.
This is not going to be a long post with policy prescriptions and suggestions for what to do about the state of American law enforcement. I can’t say for certain if police are too heavily armed, or undertrained, or underpaid, undereducated, or a combination of all of those. I can speculate and pontificate, but many smarter people than myself have been doing that over the last few months. All I want to do now is mention that police in a mid-sized town in Central Washington gunned down Antonio Zambrano-Montes, an unarmed, retreating man. Yes, he had a history of legal issues. Yes, he was definitely causing trouble. Yes, he threw rocks and withstood a Taser shot. And yes, he was still shot when plenty of other options existed. He had a life. Pasco, Washington police ended that life.
Other people will say smarter things about this. At some point, I’ll chime in with my two cents about police tactics in America. But right now, I just want to point out that injustice was done. Again.
Hopefully it leads to positive change. We could use some positive change.