By Eric M. Johnson
PASCO, Wash. (Reuters) - A Hispanic immigrant rights group said on Friday that cultural and linguistic differences may have inflamed tensions between police and a Mexican farm laborer shot dead in Washington state last week in a killing that raised questions about use of force.
Antonio Zambrano-Montes, 35, an out-of-work orchard worker from Mexico's Michoacan state, was shot and killed in the city of Pasco in Washington's agricultural heartland after he pelted police with rocks and then fled, in a confrontation captured on video.
His death sparked protests by demonstrators who accused police in Pasco of overly aggressive tactics in dealing with the Hispanic community and who likened the shooting to two high-profile police killings of unarmed black men in Ferguson, Missouri, and in New York City.
"He suffered from mental illness," Felix Vargas, chairman of Consejo Latino, said of Zambrano Montes. "They were screaming at him in a language he didn't understand. It heightened tensions."
Vargas said his group planned to work with the American Civil Liberties Union and mental health experts to draft guidelines helping police compassionately interact with immigrants.
The so-called "Zambrano protocol" will provide guidance on de-escalating conflicts with those who speak little or no English, Vargas said, adding he expected to present guidelines to authorities in coming weeks.
Pasco Police Chief Bob Metzger said he was unaware of the guidelines but said the department "is always open to reviewing anything that can assist us. Anything that our community wants from us we will give serious consideration."
Police said officers opened fire after Zambrano-Montes ignored commands to surrender and a stun gun failed to subdue him.
Investigators are examining whether Zambrano-Montes spoke English well enough to comply with officers' orders, and whether the officers involved gave him commands in Spanish, said Kennewick Police Sergeant Ken Lattin, a spokesman for a special unit investigating the incident.
"He clearly committed a felony, both the malicious mischief to other vehicles and then assaulting a police officer," Lattin said of Zambrano-Montes. "But the totality of what occurred is still what we are trying to investigate."
None of the three officers involved, one of whom is of Hispanic background, was "certified" through a city process as a Spanish speaker, he said.
CONCERN BY MEXICO
The Mexican government has condemned the shooting as a disproportionate use of lethal force. On Friday, Mexico sent its consul in Seattle to meet with the Franklin County prosecutor who briefed him on the investigation.
Earlier the county coroner ordered an inquest into the slaying. Prosecutors will then decide whether to pursue charges. The officers involved in the shooting have been placed on leave.
The family of Zambrano-Montes has also asked for an independent autopsy.
"It seemed as if it was something like a racist act," Pedro Farias, Zambrano-Montes's 32-year-old cousin, said. "They would have thought about it a bit more if it had been someone 'American.' Everyone should be seen the same."
The killing marked the fourth fatal police shooting in six months in a community of 68,000 residents that is more than half Hispanic but whose police force is disproportionately white. Details of the other shootings were not immediately available.
Of 60 Pasco police sergeants and officers, 15 are Hispanic and 43 are white, Metzger said. Twelve police officers speak Spanish. The city's lone Hispanic city council member, Saul Martinez, did not respond to interview requests.
"The city needs to study itself psychologically in the case of the police," said Steven Flores Garcia, a 32-year-old apple orchard worker. "Because, for me, they're missing a psychological element."
The ACLU did not immediately respond to request for comment on the guidelines.
Pasco settled a 2012 lawsuit for $100,000 brought by a woman who said her face was shoved against a patrol car and her arms twisted behind her by two officers, one of whom, Ryan Flanagan, was involved in Zambrano-Montes' death, her lawyer said, adding: She repeatedly denied an interpreter and mocked.
(Reporting by Eric M. Johnson from Pasco, Washington; Additional reporting by Dan Wallis in Denver; Editing by Ken Wills)