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Police shooting of Antonio Zambrano-Montes in Washington state could be the next Ferguson

  1. Police in Pasco, Washington, shot and killed Antonio Zambrano-Montes, an unarmed 35-year-old Hispanic man, on February 10.
  2. Police shot at Zambrano-Montes 17 times, hitting him five to six times, after he allegedly threw rocks at them.
  3. The shooting, caught on video, led to protests in Pasco, where the government and police remain largely white even as the city becomes increasingly Hispanic.
  4. The shooting also drew condemnation from Mexico's president and multiple government investigations, the New York Times reported.

Zambrano-Montes' death was caught on video

Warning: Graphic footage of the shooting:

The cellphone video shows Zambrano-Montes, a Mexican national, running away from cops after allegedly throwing rocks at police officers and cars, according to the New York Times. At one point, Zambrano-Montes turns around, and police open fire, killing him.

Investigators said police shot at the unarmed man 17 times, hitting him five to six times.

Zambrano-Montes had a history with police

police line

A police line. (Christopher Furlong / Getty Images News)

Police arrested Zambrano-Montes for assaulting an officer in January 2014, according to the Times. Police said he had thrown objects at them and tried to grab an officer's gun. He pleaded guilty in June.

Family members told the Times that Zambrano-Montes was unemployed in recent months. They said he was increasingly depressed and disoriented after he fell from a ladder at an apple orchard and broke both his wrists. In January, he was caught in a house fire that destroyed his belongings.

"What I know is that he was alone, that his wife had left him, that he couldn't see his daughters," Pedro Farias, his 32-year-old cousin, told the Times. "I don't know what his reasons were" for throwing rocks at police, "but I know all of this affected him."

There are some similarities to Ferguson, Missouri

Ferguson Police

Police in Ferguson, Missouri. (Scott Olson / Getty Images News)

Among the similarities between Ferguson, Missouri, and Pasco are racial disparities between the city's residents and local government. Pasco is nearly 56 percent Hispanic, but its local government isn't representative of the city's racial makeup, the New York Times reported:

Of the city's 68 officers, 14 are Hispanic. A dozen officers speak Spanish fluently, and some residents cite language barriers that complicate interactions with the police. The [seven-person] City Council has one Latino member. The five-member school board, which oversees a system that is 70 percent Latino, typically has one or two Latino members, but this year has none.

The same was true in Ferguson following the August 9 police shooting of Michael Brown. The St. Louis suburb is 67 percent black, but at the time of the Brown shooting the mayor and police chief were white, just one of six city council members was black, zero school board members were black, and only three out of 53 commissioned police officers were black, according to the Los Angeles Times.

The Zambrano-Montes shooting fanned tensions between the local Hispanic community and city government. Hundreds of protesters marched in the week following Zambrano-Montes' death, with some voicing concerns that their own children could be killed by police. In response, the Pasco Police Department claimed it's working to recruit more Hispanic officers.

Similar protests, now under the banner of "Black Lives Matter," came about following several police killings of black boys and men in 2014. In Ferguson, former police officer Darren Wilson fatally shot Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old. In Ohio, police killed 22-year-old John Crawford and 12-year-old Tamir Rice in two separate shootings after mistaking toy guns for actual weapons. In New York City, NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo killed Eric Garner by putting the unarmed 43-year-old black man in a chokehold.

Data for police shootings is spotty, but it's particularly bad for Hispanic victims

Florida police

Victims of Florida police shootings are left out of the national tally. (Joe Raedle / Getty Images News)

The most reliable data on police shootings, gathered by the FBI through local and state agencies, is extremely limited — to the point that some criminal justice experts disavow analyzing it altogether — since it's based on voluntary self-reporting. But the data is especially limited for Hispanic victims of police shootings.

Samuel Walker, a retired criminal justice professor from the University of Nebraska at Omaha, said there's no research on how many Hispanic victims are left out of police shooting data, but he has reason to believe they're undercounted.

Walker pointed out that other parts of the criminal justice system sometimes classify Hispanic people as white, likely overestimating the number of non-Hispanic white people shot and killed by police and underestimating Hispanic victims. In many cases, determinations of race and ethnicity are made by low-level officials, potentially leading to even more errors based on perceptions and prejudices regarding race.

Florida, the state with the third largest Hispanic population, is entirely excluded from the FBI's national tally of police shootings, further skewing the numbers.

"In short," Walker wrote in an email, "we have no reliable data on Hispanic/Latino people shot and killed by the police."

Cops can legally shoot when they reasonably perceive a threat

Two Supreme Court decisions in the 1980s, Tennessee vs. Garner and Graham v. Connor, set the legal framework for determining when deadly force by cops is reasonable.

Constitutionally, "police officers are allowed to shoot under two circumstances," David Klinger, a University of Missouri-St. Louis professor who studies law enforcement officers' use of force, said in August. The first circumstance is "to protect their life or the life of another innocent party" — referred to as the "defense-of-life" standard by police departments. The second circumstance is to prevent a suspect from escaping, but only if the officer has probable cause to think the suspect poses a dangerous threat to others.

The logic behind the second circumstance, Klinger explained, comes from Tennessee vs. Garner. That case involved a pair of police officers who shot a 15-year-old boy as he fled from a burglary. (He'd stolen $10 and a purse from a house.) The court ruled that cops couldn't shoot every felon who tried to escape. But, as Klinger said, "they basically say that the job of a cop is to protect people from violence, and if you've got a violent person who's fleeing, you can shoot them to stop their flight."

what matters is the officer's "objectively reasonable" belief that there is a threat

The key to both of the legal standards — defense-of-life and stopping a fleeing violent felon — is that it doesn't matter whether there is an actual threat when force is used. Instead, what matters is the officer's "objectively reasonable" belief that there is a threat.

That standard comes from the other Supreme Court case that guides use-of-force decisions: Graham v. Connor. This was a civil lawsuit brought by a man who survived his encounter with police officers, but was treated roughly, had his face shoved into the hood of a car, and broke his foot — all while suffering a diabetic attack. The court didn't rule on whether the officers'  actions had been justified, but said police couldn't justify their conduct solely based on whether their intentions were good. They had to demonstrate that their actions were "objectively reasonable," given the circumstances and compared to what other police officers might do.

What's "objectively reasonable" changes as the circumstances change. "One can't just say, 'Because I could use deadly force 10 seconds ago, that means I can use deadly force again now,'" Walter Katz, a California attorney who specializes in oversight of law enforcement agencies, said in August.

In the case of Zambrano-Montes, the legal questions are whether he was actually fleeing after he turned around and whether he posed an imminent threat to the officers or others, which police could substantiate if he was throwing rocks at officers as they allege.