If police-car and body-cam videos are such valuable eyewitness media, why is

If police-car and body-cam videos are such valuable eyewitness media, why is it that officials keep telling us we don’t see what we’re seeing?

They tell us we didn’t see New York City cops unnecessarily kill unarmed street peddler Eric Garner after applying a banned chokehold. Even as the medical examiner was calling the death a homicide, the police maintained that officer Daniel Pantaleo was admistering a legal “headhold.” No one was charged.

We were also wrong, they tell us, when we clearly saw that mentally ill unarmed veteran Brian Beaird was not reaching for his waistband when he was shot by Los Angeles police 21 times. No one was charged in the seemingly unnecessary death—except taxpayers, after LAPD recently paid $5 million to Beaird’s family.

And we supposedly didn’t see unarmed farmworker Antonio Zambrano-Montes with his empty hands out in front of him as he was riddled with bullets by Pasco police on February 10. No one has been charged in that case either—though Zambrano-Montes’ family is challenging that, having hired both a Seattle attorney and the lawyer who represented the families of Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin and Tamir Rice.

We don’t often see the full picture of what happened, police and prosecutors like to argue. Tapes typically begin rolling at the point of conflict, leaving off the foreplay. Sometimes the camera blinks at a crucial moment, like when a suspect makes that “move to the waistband.”

Obviously we’re not getting the complete story while watching those new body-cam videos on the Seattle Police YouTube channel, for example. They’re choppy, misdirected, with portions blurred for privacy.

But is there a more definitive video than the one Dario Infante Zuniga shot on his cell phone in Pasco? I’ve watched it several dozen times and read others’ assessments, pro and con. My view on it hasn’t changed since the first time I saw it—this was a bad shoot. It looks like manslaughter caught on tape.

Zambrano-Montes, 35—an illegal immigrant who was out of work, separated from his wife, and depressed after his house caught fire a few weeks earlier—was allegedly throwing “softball-size” rocks at cars that evening in Pasco.

As the Zuniga vid begins, we see—in a long shot from inside a car—police running around several squad cars with blue lights flashing. We hear five gunshots. Police and witnesses say officers were shooting at the fleeing suspect, bullets flying through a busy intersection in the late afternoon. Zambrano-Montes reportedly had been throwing rocks at police after they arrived and was shot with a taser that had no effect.

Not unlike the Ferguson, Mo., shooting of Mike Brown, Pasco police have released few details. But they do say Zambrano-Montes was accused last year of trying to grab an officer’s gun during an arrest, and earned a six-month sentence for it.

Next, the cell camera swings into a clear view of the intersection and Zambrano-Montes is seen running, possibly limping, as he crosses the street with officers in close pursuit. His hands are up, then out, as he trots along a sidewalk next to Vinny’s Bakery & Cafe. He twists and looks back, seemingly attempting to stop and submit. He is holding his hands away from his body. Finally he halts and turns, hands in front. He briefly touches both hands to his shirt—not his waistband. An enlarged photo, taken at that point from the video, shows Zambrano-Montes with arms outstretched.

This is the crucial frame—the Pasco Moment. What has happened up to now doesn’t matter. We are about to find out if officers are as well-trained in holding fire as they are in releasing it. There’s no audio, so we don’t know what might have been said (family members say Zambrano-Montes spoke little English and the Tri-City Herald reports that the police shooters were not fluent in Spanish).

As three officers fire almost a dozen rounds at point-blank range, Zambrano-Montes is holding his empty hands in plain sight. He crumples to the pavement and dies.

At a press conference last week, members of surrounding agencies known as the Tri-City Special Investigation Unit, which is probing the death, said 17 shots were fired. Of those, said Kennewick Sgt. Ken Lattin, “five or six rounds struck Mr. Zambrano.” He was uncertain of the count, he said, because autopsy results don’t agree. The official autopsy came up with five—and none in the back. But two separate autopsies, authorized by Zambrano-Montes’ widow and parents, found more.

Says Charles Herrmann, the family’s Seattle attorney, “the body bore as many as eight entrance wounds, two of which were definitely on his backside.” If correct, Zambrano-Montes could have been struck during the first volley, and was already wounded when he held out his hands and was shot dead.

Herrmann filed, then withdrew, a $25 million claim against Pasco on behalf of the widow, opting this week to join forces and work on a legal strategy with prominent civil-rights attorney Benjamin Crump, who represents Zambrano-Montes’ parents. On MSNBC this week, speaking about the Pasco case and the Cleveland shooting of Tamir Rice, who had a toy gun, Crump said, “It’s riveting that we have video now, and so hopefully more people than just the victims in our community are saying this is wrong.” The Justice Department is also reviewing the cases.

The Pasco incident was the “unjustifiable killing of an unarmed man,” Herrmann says. With the video as his centerpiece, he thinks a civil action will eventually prove it. randerson@seattleweekly.com

Rick Anderson writes about sex, crime, money, and politics, which tend to be the same thing. His latest book is Floating Feet: Irregular Dispatches From the Emerald City.

Talk to us

Please share your story tips by emailing editor@seattleweekly.com.

More in News & Comment

Carpenters union members peacefully strike on Sept. 16 in downtown Bellevue (photo by Cameron Sheppard)
Carpenters union strike on pause after “illegal picketing activity”

Union spokesperson claims wildcat protestors harrassed and threatened violence.

Puget Sound renters will need housing assistance
Puget Sound renters will need housing assistance

Nonprofits, activists are expecting greater need as workers are laid off.

Peter Rogoff to step down as Sound Transit CEO in 2022

Became CEO in 2016; search for replacement to begin

File photo/Sound Publishing
Ban on single-use plastic bags in WA begins Oct. 1

Shoppers will have the choice to pay for a reusable plastic or recycled paper bag.

file photo
Housing and finance insiders call for subsidized housing families can own, instead of rent

Advocates say increasing homeownership will strengthen the community, build intergenerational wealth

Map of proposed landfill expansion sites (screenshot from King County website)
Waste management expert knocks county’s plan to expand landfill

The waste management advocate said the decision to expand seems pre-determined despite assessment.

file photo
State employees including first responders sue state over vaccine mandate

The lawsuit filed on behalf of more than 90 plaintiffs claims Inslee’s order is unconstitutional.

Pixabay photo
Union carpenters to go on strike, expected to impact Eastside Microsoft projects

Members authorized strike after rejecting AGC offer for the fourth time.

file photo
The state’s hospitals face “unprecedented collapse” amid COVID uptick warn healthcare unions

Union spokeperson says understaffing was a problem even before the pandemic.

Gov. Jay Inslee talks about schools reopening during a past news conference. (Screenshot courtesy of TVW)
Masks required at big outdoor events; vaccine mandates expanded

Governor’s mask order takes effect Sept. 13.

Pixabay image
King County is looking for community members to help oversee law enforcement accountability

Community Advisory Committee for Law Enforcement Oversight is in need of applicants.