PASCO, Wash. - One of the officers who killed an immigrant farmworker in Washington state in a shooting that helped fuel the nationwide debate over police use of force had dragged the man away from his burning rental home just weeks earlier.
Antonio Zambrano-Montes, who in another case had pleaded with police to kill him, was sitting on the ground in January in a meth-induced trance near the fire when Officer Adam Wright found him, according to documents obtained by The Associated Press under public records requests.
Weeks later, Wright and two other officers shot Zambrano-Montes after he had been throwing rocks in a busy intersection. Video footage that showed the man running away, then turning around with arms outstretched just as police unloaded, prompted months of protests. He was the third person killed by Pasco officers within six months.
The documents obtained by the AP shed new light on Zambrano-Montes’ run-ins with police and his erratic, sometimes dangerous behavior.
While Pasco police say their officers generally receive more training than state standards require, records show only a half-dozen had taken an extended course on dealing with people in the throes of drug-abuse or mental health crisis - fewer than other departments in the region.
And none of the officers who shot Zambrano-Montes had that advanced training, the records show.
“Any time you see a police officer shoot someone who is known to have mental health issues, it makes you wonder: Who has responsibility for this? Where did the system break down?” said Sue Rahr, a former sheriff who now heads Washington’s Criminal Justice Training Commission.
Despite the farmworker’s contacts with police, the documents contain no record he ever wound up in counseling or treatment. In one instance last July, after Zambrano-Montes gouged his forehead with a knife and asked police to kill him, an officer alerted a crisis response unit. It’s unclear if anything came of it.
“They never referred him to any type of treatment whatsoever,” said George Trejo, a lawyer for the man’s family.
Meanwhile, Zambrano-Montes was floundering on the margins.
He had been living in the U.S. illegally for a decade, and was estranged from his daughters and wife, who obtained a protection order against him. He had broken his wrists in a fall, had been out of work and despaired over his inability to send money home to his parents, his family said.
In January 2014, witnesses called police because he was hitting cars with a broom. He threw a mailbox at responding officers and tried to grab an officer’s gun. He admitted taking methamphetamines and spent five months in the county jail.
On July 15, he cut his forehead and locked himself in a basement. Officers busted in. After a struggle, he said he wanted police to kill him. Medics sedated him before taking him to an emergency room.
Police requested felony assault charges for what they described as Zambrano-Montes’ attack on officers, but prosecutors declined. “From reviewing the reports it appears the suspect was a ‘mental,’” a prosecutor wrote.
On Jan. 22, two city workers discovered Zambrano-Montes in his home as it burned. They walked him outside, where Wright soon found him and asked him to move. He didn’t respond.
“Because he was so close to the fire, I grabbed the man and pulled him farther away for safety reasons,” Wright said. A day later, when he was sober, Zambrano-Montes told him he’d been high on meth and probably started the fire accidentally.
Wright had more than 200 hours of training in 2014, including a 40-hour course on domestic violence and protection orders.
But Wright and Officers Adrian Alaniz and Ryan Flanagan did not have the extended crisis intervention training, nor do their training records suggest they had taken courses on de-escalating volatile situations. In 2007, Flanagan took a three-hour course on people with mental illness and developmental disabilities.
Capt. Ken Roske emphasized that the officers were “extremely well-trained and professional.” He said all of the department’s 71 officers have taken a basic four-hour crisis intervention course.
But training rosters show only six full-time Pasco officers had attended a weeklong course hosted since 2009 by the department in neighboring Kennewick, which has sent 28 of its 93 officers to the training. That course is considered especially important for departments in the region because it focuses not just on techniques for safely dealing with drug-addled or mentally disturbed people, but on how to direct them into appropriate local services.
Ideally, departments would have about one-quarter to one-third of their officers take the extended training, said Bob Graham, a program manager in the advanced training division of the police training commission.
The Zambrano-Montes shooting has sparked further interest in Kennewick’s training. A record 45 officers, including six from Pasco, registered for this year’s course, which is being held this week.
“All of this crisis training is great before it’s dangerous,” Roske said. “Once someone is threatening the officer or threatening the public, all that training goes out the window. … If they’re charging people with a knife, you have to deal with them.”
Training aside, Gordon Bopp, a mental health advocate in nearby Richland, said the problem goes beyond how police respond. He said it has to do with the dearth of treatment options. “We don’t have any place where first responders can bring these people,” he said.
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