Salinas police officers fatally shot two men in a two week period this month, sparking protests in East Salinas and raising the possibility of a federal civil rights lawsuit against the city. Both men were killed as suspects when police responded to 911 calls, but locals say the incidents reveal a pattern of overly aggressive policing in Latino neighborhoods.
A cellphone video captures the moment when 5 shots rang out on Del Monte and Sanborn, in East Salinas last week. You can hear the young woman recording it yelling at the officers who had just shot Carlos Mejia. Her taunts foreshadow the grim mood that soon took hold of the neighborhood. “What do you guys think you are? Stupid Ass,” she shouts, as sirens approach.
Mejia died there on the sidewalk. To many in East Salinas, his death bears striking similarities to that of another man, Osman Hernandez, who was shot by police outside a Mi Pueblo supermarket less than two weeks earlier. Brian Contrera is the founding director of Second Chance, an East Salinas non-profit devoted to fighting gang violence. As he put it, “both individuals were mono-lingual Spanish speakers, both individuals were farmworkers, both individuals were intoxicated, and both individuals had similar weapons.”
The men carried a lettuce knife and garden shears, respectively. Justified or not, Contreras says these two shootings have amplified longstanding resentment of police among Latinos in East Salinas.That resentment culminated in protests which turned violent and claimed the life of a third immigrant farmworker last week. Contreras believes East Salinas has seen its share of racial profiling over the years. But he says local tension with police also has a lot to do with a language barrier and with a department stretched thin by budget cuts. As an officer, their radio’s going click got a call, gotta run, click, got a call, gotta run, click, got a call, gotta run,” Contreras explains. “They don’t really have an opportunity to sit there and talk to the people.”
Police Chief Kelly McMillin says his department can barely field enough patrols to cover the city. “We’ve lost a lot of our community policing police officers. I onlye have two in the whole city; we don’t have school resource officers anymore.”
While the officers responsible for the first shooting have been cleared and returned to work, the internal investigation of Carlos Mejia’s shooting is ongoing. “I think it’s pretty clear that proof is in dispute here,” McMillin says. The chief has arranged for a Department of Justice review of the internal investigations of both shootings.
Meanwhile, a press conference outside City Hall on Tuesday announced Mejia’s family’s intention to pursue litigation. Unless the police department acknowledges wrongdoing and awards damages to the family, lawyer John Burris vows to file a federal civil rights lawsuit against the city, and to call for a separate investigation by the Department of Justice. “Real questions have been raised about whether or not this department has engaged in a systematic pattern of discriminatory law enforcement,” Burris contends.
Any definitive outcomes there are a long way off. But some East Salinas residents have drawn their conclusions more quickly. Farmworker Jose Chavez stands beside the busy intersection where Mejia was killed, watching his children play on the sidewalk outside his house. He says his views of the police changed after witnessing Mejia’s shooting.
“People feel insulted, angry, Chavez says. “People have lost their trust in the police, and don’t want to call them to report emergencies, because they’re afraid the same thing will happen. “Many people would rather keep quiet,” he explains. And that could take years to change.