Protests broke out in Pasco, Washington after an unarmed Mexican immigrant was fatally shot by police officers who said he threw rocks at them. In Grapevine, Texas 10 days later, there was a community uproar after a Latino robbery suspect was shot by police following a high-speed chase. And people took to the streets in Santa Ana, California days later, after police officers killed a Mexican-American they had pulled over on suspicion of robbery.
Prior to the police-related shooting in Ferguson, Missouri, these incidents may have fueled anger locally. But Ferguson has become an emblem of the tensions between minorities and police departments nationwide – and it has seemed to galvanize minority communities to take to the streets after police-related deaths they feel are unjust.
Although the Justice Department cleared Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson of criminal wrongdoing in the killing of Michael Brown last week, it made numerous allegations in a report against the city's police department that included racial disparities in arrests, bigotry and profit-driven law enforcement — essentially using the black community as a piggy bank to support the city's budget through fines.
Though the report centered on Ferguson, its findings have resonated beyond the St. Louis suburbs as residents in some communities across the country say they feel they face the same struggles with their police departments and city leadership.
Many in the Hispanic community say they are dealing with similar issues with police. Latinos in the agricultural city of Pasco, where migrant worker Antonio Zambrano-Montes was killed on Feb. 10, say they know the story all too well.
"We know Pasco is only the most recent area where this has happened," said Felix Vargas, chairman of a local Hispanic business organization called Consejo Latino. "We have a national problem. We continue to struggle with this issue of policing."
Mexico ’s Foreign Ministry on Monday issued a statement requesting that the U.S. Justice Department step in to investigate three police killings of Mexican nationals in the United States, all of which took place in the course of 17 days.
Ten days after Zambrano-Montes was killed, Ruben Garcia Villalpando, an undocumented father of four in Grapevine, Texas, who was suspected of robbery was shot after a high-speed chase. Then on Feb. 27, Santa Ana, California, police shot and killed Ernesto Javier Canepa Díaz multiple times after pulling him over on suspicion of robbery.
"Given that these incidents cannot be looked at in isolation, the Mexican government has called for the U.S. Department of Justice through its civil rights division to monitor the investigation of these three cases to assure that they're conducted with transparency and where appropriate, the proper criminal or civil responsibility is determined," Mexico's Foreign Ministry said.
President Barack Obama addressed the issue Friday on the eve of the 50th anniversary of "Bloody Sunday" when police beat scores of people at a civil rights march in Selma, Alabama. While not typical, the issues raised in the Ferguson report also were not isolated, he said.
On Saturday, protesters took to the streets in Madison, Wisconsin, after the fatal shooting of an unarmed black 19-year-old by a white police officer, chanting "Black Lives Matter." Authorities said the police officer fired his weapon after he was assaulted. The officer was placed on administrative leave pending results of an investigation by an outside state agency.
"These communities are vulnerable because they don't believe the law is there to protect them," said Kevin Jones, a black, 36-year-old Iraq war veteran who lives in Saginaw, Michigan, a once predominantly white city that's now about half black. He recalled being pulled over and arrested in 2011 for having his music too loud in the wrong part of town. The noise complaint was dropped when an officer failed to show for his hearing, but Jones said he still had to pay to get his car back.
Saginaw's police force, which is three-quarters white, came under scrutiny after officers killed a homeless, mentally ill, black man in 2012 when he refused to drop a knife. The American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan has called for the Justice Department to conduct a review of the department's practices. The city meanwhile established a citizens committee to try to improve relations with police.
Community leaders in Anaheim, California, have also been seeking a federal review of their department. Demonstrators rioted over two officer-involved shootings in 2012, and residents said Hispanics seemed to be singled out by police in a city that had gone from mostly white when Disneyland was built to mostly Latino.
Jose Moreno, president of Los Amigos of Orange County, a Latino community group, said he didn't believe the overt profiling uncovered in Ferguson occurred in Anaheim, but unless there's a federal investigation he may never know.
"I think it is great the Department of Justice decided to do it somewhere. It just begs the question: Why not here?" he said.
In Pasco, where Vargas lives, the racial makeup of the city has changed over the years and now it's more than half Hispanic, but only one in five of its police are. Even fewer speak fluent Spanish.
Mayor Matt Watkins said Pasco is open to a federal or state review of its policing and he'd be interested to see more data on arrest rates or other potential indicators of discriminatory policing.
That's something police everywhere should be looking at, said former Seattle U.S. Attorney Jenny Durkan, who helped oversee a federal investigation that found Seattle police were too quick to use force.
"At this time in our history, every police department in America should be reevaluating their relationships with the people they serve," Durkan said. "But it doesn't fall just to the police departments. We all have to look hard at the economic disparities that cause some of the inequality, at how we deal with mental illness, and at what we want the role of our police departments to be."
San Diego State University Professor Joshua Chanin, who has studied Justice Department efforts to reform police departments, said departments could more systematically collect and publish arrest, traffic stop and citation data by race. That could help deter biased policing, because police would be more sensitive to what their statistics show, and it could help validate — or dispel — notions in the community that some groups are singled out.
Even when investigations bring reform, perceptions can be slow to change.
In Miami, the Justice Department came in after seven black men were killed by officers over an eight-month period ending in 2011. The controversy forced out the police chief and brought changes on how police use deadly force, though some say there still aren't enough blacks among the department's brass.
In Liberty City, an impoverished, mostly black neighborhood, suspicions remain.
Standing outside the salon and tattoo parlor where he works, Ronnie Bless put it this way: "If you fit a certain profile, they can do what they want to you."
Based on reporting by The Associated Press.
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