Hours after Franklin County Prosecuting Attorney Shawn Sant cleared three Pasco, Washington, police officers in the February shooting death of Antonio Zambrano-Montes, I had a conversation with Rick Rios, the media coordinator for Consejo Latino, the first local Latino organization to speak out against Zambrano’s death.

Rios was at the yesterday’s press conference, where Sant said his office would not pursue any criminal charges against officers Adam Wright, Ryan Flanagan and Adrian Alaniz. When the shooting occurred this past February, a video of Zambrano’ death had gone viral, raising questions that Pasco officers used excessive force in subduing Zambrano, whom Sant said was threatening police with rocks, some as heavy as five pounds.

According to Sant, the officers were “acting in good faith and without malice.” Sant’s decision prompted Governor Jay Inslee to instruct the state’s Attorney General to commence a formal review as to why Sant decided to not press charges yesterday. In addition, a Department of Justice civil rights investigation, initiated at the request of Consejo Latino, is still ongoing, along with a local internal investigation by Pasco Police Chief Bob Metzger. (Click here for a local report about Sant’s conference.)

During my conversation with Rios (a family friend of my father), we discussed all these issues and what yesterday’s conference meant to those who have been raising awareness about Zambrano, a Mexican national.

Julio Ricardo Varela: So it’s the day after. How are you, Consejo Latino and others who are supporting Antonio reacting to Sant’s decision?

Rick Rios: This man [Sant] is in over his head. How could he possibly make these decisions? Because the immediacy of the Governor’s office, the regional Attorney General’s office and the Department of Justice’s immediate response to his decision was that all of them said, “We’re going to investigate this.” All three agencies are going to review the decision made by Sant. And Sant focused everything on a very very narrow interpretation of the legislative process for officers, and he kept saying this over and over again: “Evil intent.”

JRV: Yeah, I caught the whole press conference via a live stream, but you were there. I mean, I could sense the tension…

RR: Yeah, it was, it was palatable.

JRV: It was really almost uncomfortable to watch.

RR: I kept expecting something to happen because going into it, we knew what the decision was going to be, but the way [Sant] explained it, there was just unwillingness to describe anything beyond their interpretation. For Sant to say that he wasn’t concerned with anything except the three officers shooting, I mean, he didn’t give any consideration to the danger the public was put in by these cops spraying 17 bullets. He had no concern about anything except to whether there was “evil intent” when these three police officers shot Mr. Zambrano. That was Sant’s whole entire focus: the Legislature said I have to prove evil intent, and I can’t do it. Well, then you should have never been on this case. We said that from Day 1. [Sant] lives with these people [police officers], you socialize with these people. Their kids go to the same schools. Their wives hang out together. And you’re going to turn around and issue a charge against these officers? No, you don’t have the capacity, and that is what [Consejo Latino chair Felix Vargas] and I said yesterday… the immediacy in which every government responded to [Sant’s] decision points out what we have said from the very beginning. It’s like he is saying, “I was elected to this position. It’s my show. I make the rules.

JRV: The two bigger issues that I would like to discuss since you were at the press conference. Just tell me a little bit more about who was there, what people were saying. I heard a lot of “No justice no peace” comments. Someone said that the conference didn’t have a translator and there were three white men speaking English at the press conference. Someone also said, “What about the respect for Antonio?” and “How do you justify 17 shots?” Were those people in the media saying that or were they people from the community?

RR: Those were community members but there was also people from the press. There were two members of the Hispanic media that were fairly aggressive in their questioning. The rest of the media was just capturing it all on video. This was the biggest collection of news media I have ever seen in the Tri-Cities. There must have been 10 to 12 cameras set up. The outrage that you heard was from the community. There was a real representation of people there. The coroner was there, and now the coroner will do an inquest because Sant kept saying that even the people who were anti-police still had to agree with us.

JRV: What do you take from that, because he kept saying that throughout the conference? He also said that there were other witnesses who saw the shooting but never got interviewed by Sant’s office or police. Didn’t he say that? 

RR: Yes, they refused to talk. The feeling that everyone came away with was: it didn’t matter what anyone was going to say… Sant already knew what he was looking for. And what he was looking for was “evil intent.” Did anyone see “evil intent” that I as a prosecutor am going to be stuck with defending or can I fall back on my “evil intent” defense? That is what he fell back on and that is what he stuck to. Because he didn’t care if witnesses were anti-police. He was searching for the “evil intent.” That is what Sant based his entire decision on. And he said as much that he didn’t care about anything else.

JRV: So what you are saying is that Sant basically based his entire decision on the “evil intent” statute and he also decided that there would be no other lesser charge against these officers?

RR: Oh,  no, there could have been lesser charges presented. Sant was just focusing on whether the officers were justified in killing Mr. Zambrano. Sant even said in his own words that he didn’t care about anything else. People even asked him if there were crimes committed when these officers put the community in danger. Wasn’t that reckless endangerment? His response was that he didn’t even think about that. Sant’s focus was the shooting. Wow.

JRV: Another point Sant kept making was that he wanted to help the community moving forward by working more on mental health and drug abuse issues. What has Consejo Latino been hearing about this? Has Franklin County tried to paint Zambrano as this drug addict depressive man?

RR: Absolutely. If you listen to Sant yesterday, he kept going on and on about the glucose level, that Mr. Zambrano’s glucose level was 2,000, that is was 20 times the amount of methamphetamine that a person needs to have in their system. He just kept hammering that, hammering that, hammering that. From the very beginning, from the absolute very beginning, from the day of the shooting, they brought up his drug use. They painted the picture from Day 1. There was never any hesitation from their part to say that he was just an undocumented Mexican who was a drug user. When [Pasco City Manager] David Zabell said to me in the very first meeting that we had with the Department of Justice and there was only five of us there —myself, Felix, Chief Metzger, Dave Zabell and Knight Sor of the DOJ, who mediated the whole thing— that when the toxicology report comes out, Rick, it is going to show that he had a lot of meth in his system. And I looked at Zabell and told him that meth is not a capital offense. And he told me, “Yeah, Rick, but you know, he was crazy.” That’s when I thought: this is what you guys are going to hang your hat on. The drug-crazed Mexican. 

JRV: And that was the question people were trying to ask Sant yesterday. That is, let’s say that he was on drugs, that he was “crazy,” he was telling people to “kill me” in Spanish, which I don’t think was pretty definitive, at least from what I can tell. All that said and done, it comes down to this question: Are 17 shots justifiable to shoot someone?

RR: Julio, I pressed Sant on that yesterday. And I asked him the same question three different ways.

JRV: And Sant said that it was a really tough question to answer.

RR: And I kept saying this: at what point does force become excessive? And Sant just kept stumbling, reminding me that Mr. Zambrano was throwing rocks and that Tasers were initially used and that eventually without Sant saying it, what he was really saying was this—once they decided to kill Mr. Zambrano, there is no excessive force. It is going to be whatever it is they choose to inflict on this person to get the job done. At no point is that ever seen as excessive. Do whatever it is you got to do to kill that person. That is just messed up, Julio. That is just messed up.

JRV: Very little has been said about whether Zambrano even understood the officer’s commands in English. Did the officers even speak to him in Spanish? Did that even get addressed in all this, the language issue in this entire investigation?

RR: Yeah, they are not addressing it in the investigation because they are saying that well, you know, he was out of control anyway, so he wasn’t going to listen to anything. He was on a mission, you know, his mission was suicide by cop or do something to me, because as Sant kept saying, Mr. Zambrano was saying, “Shoot me, shoot me.” There isn’t anything that is being said publicly about the language issue, but in the DOJ meetings and cop meetings that we are having, we hammer this every day. How can you possibly run a police department when you can’t speak to the people you are policing? I mean, let’s get real here. And the police chief’s response is that you don’t have to speak Spanish to be a good police officer? No, but you know what? It sure helps. It makes you a better police officer. 

JRV: Let talk about Chief Metzger for a minute. I would think that when he spoke about the internal investigation his department was conducting, there were a lot of skeptics in the room?

RR: Oh, absolutely. That’s why there was an audible sigh in the whole room when he said that. And it’s been that way since Day 1. Everything’s an ongoing investigation, so we can’t comment on anything. Oh, really? How are you going to investigate yourself? How are you going to put this whole entire community in charge of investigating themselves and put it in the hands of the prosecutor who is your defender? How is that going to work? We knew this was going to happen. We predicted it. We reached out to every governmental agency. I mean, we have been relentless about this, from the moment we started talking about this in February. Felix and I have been relentless about getting the government and the DOJ involved.

JRV: So where do you guys go next?

RR: We had a meeting with DOJ on Tuesday and this was for Chief Metzger and Dave Zabell to answer issues that we brought up in last month’s meeting about the use of excessive force and the Pasco Police’s training manual. Tuesday’s meeting was to give the city and Chief Metzger their opportunity to answer our concerns. We have another meeting scheduled for the 26th of this month to discuss what’s going to be implemented.

UPDATE, 8:13pmET: I received the following email from Dave Zabell the conversation I had with Rios (which I had recorded)

Mr. Varela,

As you may be aware from the City’s press release yesterday following Prosecutor Shawn Sant’s decision on the Zambrano-Montes shooting, the City is not commenting further on this specific matter as civil litigation is pending.

I have read your latest article and the direct quote from Mr. Rios attributing comments allegedly made by me to Mr. Rios regarding Mr. Zambrano.  Simply put, the statements alleged to have been made by me as recounted by Mr. Rios are inaccurate.  I wish I could elaborate, however because of the pending litigation in this matter I cannot.