Jessica (Jessie) Hernandez, 17, shot to death by police Jan. 26, 2015, in Denver, Colorado. She was unarmed, but is alleged to have intentionally pointed the stolen car she was driving at  the police officer who shot her, pinning him to a wall and…

Why do I cast no shadow?

"Why do I cast no shadow? Reaction and non-reaction to the police shootings of Latinos in the U.S." is a multi-part exploration of national and local community…


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Reaction and non-reaction to the police shootings of Latinos in the U.S.

[Read as a silk]

Why do I cast no shadow?
Are there lights on all sides shining on me?
Ahead, ahead,
curled up inside the serpent's coils,
the damp breath of death on my face.
I knew at that instant, something must change
or I'd die.
Algo tenía que cambiar.
— Gloria Anzaldúa


Why do I cast no shadow? Reaction and non-reaction to the police shootings of Latinos in the U.S. is a multi-part exploration of national and local community reaction to some of the lethal police shootings of Latinos that have taken place in 2015, along with a look at the numbers nationally and a glimpse of Latino-police relations in Philadelphia.


Part 1: The dead who make no noise

Hay muertos que no hacen ruido, Llorona
y es más grande su penar.
— from the Mexican folksong "La Llorona" 



Jessie Hernandez. Rúben García Villalpando. Antonio Zambrano Montes. Ernesto Javier Canepa Díaz. Hector Morejón.

Nearly every month of the year so far in 2015 has seen a police shooting of an unarmed Latino or Latina that fuels the debate about whether police officers habitually use excessive force in their dealings with minority communities.

Like Michael Brown, Hernandez and Morejón were teenagers, barely more than children really. So much so that Morejón died calling for his mother, even as she was barred by police from riding in the ambulance with him. He was shot during police response to a call about trespassing and possible vandalism, and the police say no verbal warning was issued before he was shot.

García Villalpando's interaction with the officer who would ultimately shoot him dead was caught on video, and stops just seconds before his death — like the video of Eric Garner. If the 31-year-old's question as he gets out of the car, "Are you going to kill me?" isn't as plaintive as "I can't breathe!" it is, nonetheless, just as chillingly predictive.  

Zambrano Montes's shooting is shown in a video that is as haunting and disturbing as Walter Scott 's — Zambrano Montes runs away from officers, the cops fire 17 times until he goes down. Meanwhile, tellingly, the bystanders watching and recording the incident comment in Spanish that the 35-year-old had nothing but a rock in his hands, and then argue with each other about getting out of the vicinity before they, too, are shot by the cops on the scene. 


Canepa Díaz's family have called police "a gang with a badge," and question everything from the their decision to follow the 28-year-old father of four because his van resembled one in a security tape of a theft, to the department's silence about the details of the confrontation after he was stopped, to the police's focus on a replica bb-gun that was in the van but not in Canepa Díaz's hand when he was shot.

Hernandez was shot and killed in January; García Villalpando, Zambrano Montes and Canepa Díaz in February; Morejón in April. March was a good month.

Or maybe we simply haven't heard about an instance from March yet. 

"Latinos are a rising number of fatal police shooting victims," Colorlines noted back in 2007, but it is increasingly apparent that those Latino deaths cast very little shadow on the national consciousness.

The protests about Hernandez's shooting in Denver drew an unusually large number of protesters (approximately 800, compared to the more usual two dozen who protested for Canepa in Santa Ana, or Morejón in Long Beach, Calif.), largely because LGBTQ advocates and the Denver Freedom Riders joined in. Democracy Now devoted a segment to the alleged discrepancies between the police reports and autopsy of the young Latina lesbian, and the hacktivist group Anonymous got on Twitter to call her killing a murder. For a while it looked like Hernandez's face might become one of the youthful faces tied inextricably to the demand for justice and police accountability.

But the hubbub died down and when the New York Times  started talking about the Latino community's "Ferguson moment" with the police shooting of Zambrano Montes, there was no memory of Hernandez in the piece.

The Mexican Office of Foreign Affairs has demanded a Department of Justice investigation of not only of the Zambrano Montes shooting, but also Villalpando's and Canepa's (since they all held Mexican citizenship and all three instances happened within days of each other), and that has granted it more widespread media attention, as have multiple protests in Washington that have drawn up to 700 people

But even with its ugly video evidence, the Zambrano Montes case hasn't galvanized Latinos nationwide like the killings of Brown, Garner and Freddie Gray galvanized African Americans across the United States.

Jasón Calderón, of Hoy en la Noche, posits that seasonal workers and undocumented immigrants are too fearful these days to rally in protest — a reflection of how much more punitive the deportation machine has become since the mid 2000s, when millions mobilized in "Day without an immigrant" marches across the nation. Calderón's assessment is a simplified version of journalist Leon Krauze's analysis of why those in Pasco — a majority Latino city — didn't rally in greater numbers.

Krauze, who is the anchor at Univision's KMEX in L.A., said in an interview with NPR that despite a substantial population of third- and fourth-generation Mexican-American families, the seasonal workers in Pasco are hesitant to speak up. "It's just a matter of a simple cost-benefit analysis," he told Jasmine Garsd, "Would you run the risk of deportation in order to pursue what I think is still an abstract, quote, unquote, benefit?"

In the same interview, Julio Ricardo Varela, the founder of the website Latino Rebels, said the subdued national response indicated a lack of Latino unity.

But none of those address the fact that expressions of solidarity from outside the Latino population have been few and far between.

"Violence or discrimination against Latinos does not tend to resonate among most Americans because Latinos are generally not perceived as Americans but recent immigrants or foreigners with no deep roots and histories in the U.S.," said Frances Negrón-Muntaner, the director of Columbia University's Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race, when asked why that was so by the Huffington Post.

And the lack of Latino representation in the general interest media doesn't help, Negrón-Muntaner added.

But African Americans are also underrepresented and inaccurately portrayed by the media, and yet Michael Brown and Eric Garner have become not only household names, but a call to action about police impunity and body cams.


It began with a tweet, and continues on social media platforms where activism and community have made hashtags like #BlackLivesMatter and #SayHerName extraordinarily effective ways to draw attention to ignored issues. And turned what might have otherwise stayed local into national. It is no exaggeration to say that those hashtags provided a strong, unified voice for African Americans in the United States, and spurred alliance and coalition of heretofore unimagined scope.

As Varela pointed out, no Latino sense of unity of purpose has been achieved even with the number of police killings that have taken place in 2015 so far. Unlike Black Twitter, Latino Twitter (if such a collective entity exists in anything but theory) has been unable to muster up even one memorable hashtag to rally around. Latino activism remains resolutely divided by region, national origin and documentation status.

Some Chicano and Mexican-American activists point out that since a majority of victims of police shootings are Mexican, or Mexican-American, to say "Latinos killed by police" obscures the truly directed nature of use of excessive force by police. And there certainly is a great deal of resonance in that argument. There is a long history of "law enforcement" outrages against Mexicans and Mexican-Americans (including lynchings and wholesale repatriation) that no other Latino heritage group has had to struggle against.

Nevertheless, efforts to abandon the encompassing (albeit flattening) terminology forget that Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, South and Central Americans and others are — depending on the location — also fighting the profiling and stop-and-frisk police policies that so often lead to officer involved shootings. The inability to speak as a group — as the 16 percent of the U.S. population Latinos are — weakens the ability to forcefully articulate concerns about treatment by local police officers, state troopers, ICE agents or Border Patrol alike.

In any case, the hashtags associated with the Latinos killed in 2015 haven't broken through in the way of #BlackLivesMatter. They are less calls to action than heartbreakingly individual memorials, and so our Latino dead make less noise and cast smaller shadows on our national conversation than they could — and should.



Part 2: Numbers without authority

"The numbers just aren't there."

Anyone who has written about Latinos killed by police hears that at least once. There are two ways to understand it: 1) that Latinos aren't killed in the numbers Whites and Blacks are, and, 2) that the numbers are hard to find and even harder to rely on.

The first, by the measures we have, is true when you consider raw numbers. But rates of police killings proportional to population size means Latinos are killed at 1.9 times the rate of White, non-Latinos, but are nowhere near as likely to be killed as Blacks (2.8 times the rate of White, non-Latinos) nor Native Americans who, given population size, are the most likely of all demographic groups to be killed by law enforcement. 

The second reading — that aggregate statistics about use of lethal force by police officers are hard to come by and oddly inconsistent — is indeed true. The FBI compilation for "Justifiable Homicides" for 2013, for example, puts the total number of lethal police shootings at 461. The CDC, which compiles the number of "Legal interventions" as the underlying cause of death, puts the total for the same year at 531, and 1point21interactive, which uses the crowdsourced database of Fatal Encounters, puts the total of fatal shooting/taser/vehicle and other deaths attributable to police at 898.

That's a substantial variation, and one that makes it impossible to offer definitive or authoritative numbers about police use of lethal force. In fact, a recently released Bureau of Justice Statistics report asserts that FBI numbers are so undercounted they may leave nearly half of the people killed by police out of the count altogether.

The 1point21interactive number for 2015 so far is 212 (neither the FBI nor CDC have released figures yet, of course), of which 64 of the victims have been White, 50 Black, 26 Hispanic, 6 other (which includes Native American-Alaskan, Pacific Islander, Asian, Mixed race and Middle Eastern). It also has a whopping 66 victims whose ethnicity could not be definitely ascertained. 

That unknown illustrates a problem that all the datasets have, particularly with regard to Latinos, who can be of any race. The CDC issues this caveat with its WONDER datasets: "Studies have shown that persons self-reported as American Indian, Asian, or Hispanic on census and survey records may sometimes be reported as white or non-Hispanic on the death certificate, resulting in an underestimation of deaths and death rates for the American Indian, Asian, and Hispanic groups."

Further, from the CDC:

"Hispanic origin was not reported on the death certificate for some deaths. On the mortality file, missing Hispanic origin information is coded as 'not stated'. There is no corresponding population figure for this group. Therefore, deaths with Hispanic origin not stated are excluded when death rates are calculated by Hispanic origin. ... Data for the 'Not Stated' Hispanic Origin category cannot be combined with any other specified age group or Hispanic Origin categories. Death rates are not calculated specifically for the 'Not Stated' groups because there are no corresponding population denominator data for these groups."


CDC: Total "legal intervention" deaths by race, 2013

CDC: Total "legal intervention" deaths by race and subset of Hispanic/Latino origins, 2013

CDC: Total "legal intervention" deaths of those of Hispanic/Latino origins and those of non-Hispanic/non-Latino origins, 2013



Part 3: Factoring in the Border Patrol

Should we include the Border Patrol in totals of officer-initiated shootings of Latinos?

Customs and Border Protection, the nation's largest law enforcement agency has 60,000 agents and officers and an annual budget in the billions. It is for all intents and purposes, a well-equipped paramilitary force.

It is also, according to a piece by the L.A. Times from February of this year,  an agency that has received complaints about Border Patrol agents shooting and killing approximately 24 people on the border in the past five years, but has neither prosecuted nor disciplined any of those involved. "Nearly a year after the Obama administration vowed to crack down on Border Patrol agents who use excessive force, no shooting cases have been resolved, no agents have been disciplined, a review panel has yet to issue recommendations, and the top two jobs in internal affairs are vacant."

Make that 39 people whose deaths are attributable to the CBP say the Southern Border Communities Coalition, an organization which works to ensure that border enforcement policies are accountable and fair. The list the community organization maintains shows that the majority of those killed are Latinos or Mexican nationals, many of them "rock throwers" or unarmed when the fatal shooting takes place.

While we don't tend to think of the Border Patrol the same way we think about police, they employ similar profiling and "reasonable suspicion" protocols that target specific ethnic and racial groups. And as the L.A. Times article indicates, they do it with de facto impunity.

The tremendous disparity of power that fundamentally underpins officer involved shootings in local police forces becomes undeniable in those instances where Border Patrol agents return weapon fire for rocks thrown at them.

José Antonio Elena Rodriguez, 16; Sergio Adrian Hernández Guereca, 15; and Guillermo Arévalo Pedroza, 36, were all fatally shot in different Mexican towns (Nogales, Ciudad Juárez and Nuevo Laredo, respectively) by Border Patrol agents standing on U.S. soil. That the agents shot and killed across international borders led to the families of the three aforementioned Mexican nationals to bring suit against the CBP. Rodriguez's case is being backed by the ACLU; and the Hernández Guereca case is being backed by the Mexican government during a rehearing. An earlier ruling would have permitted the suit to continue against the specific agent involved but not the agent's supervisors or the U.S. government.

The agent who shot and killed Hernández Guereca? Still on the job.

Like their local police counterparts, Border Patrol agents have, in some instances, brutalized suspects in such a manner that death was inevitable. One such instance was the case of Anastasio Hernández Rojas, which was documented in a harrowing PBS investigative video titled Crossing the Line at the Border.

At no moment is it possible to watch that video — nor the bystander/eyewitness videos of Hernández Guereca's and Arévalo Pedroza's killings — without understanding that the Border Patrol's problem is not a few rogue agents, but a failed system where excessive force can go unpunished and impunity is too often assumed.

Philadelphia columnist Solomon Jones marks the parallels between the fatal shootings of Michael Brown by police and of José Antonio Elena Rodriguez by Border Patrol agents:



Map of selected CBP deadly incidents, 2010-2015 (Southern Border Communities Coalition data)

Selected listing of CBP deadly incidents, 2010-2015 (Southern Border Communities Coalition data)


Part 4: What about Philadelphia?

Latinos and policing in the city of brotherly love

One of the revelations of the Department of Justice's report on an investigation of the Philadelphia Police Department (initiated at the request of Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey in 2013) is that officer-involved shootings, including fatal ones, are on the rise. And that the department has had nearly 400 deadly force incidents between 2007 and 2013.

The most recent police killing that mobilized people in Philly took place in December, 2014, when 26-year-old Brandon Tate-Brown of North Philadelphia was shot by a police officer who claim he fired as Tate-Brown was reaching for a gun. Tate Brown's family disputed the story, based on video of the incident they were shown by the police.

"The only mistake my cousin, Brandon Tate-Brown, made is that he was driving while black in the city of Philadelphia,"  Tate-Brown's cousin Asa Khalif told 6-Action News in response to District Attorney Seth Williams announcing that the officer would not be charged with a crime.

According to the DOJ report Collaborative Reform Initiative, An Assessment of Deadly Force in the Philadelphia Police Department (2015, CNA Corporation): "Between 2007 and 2013, the number of unarmed suspects shot at by PPD officers ranged from four to 11 annually. Accounting for the total number of OISs in each year shows that the proportion of unarmed OIS suspects has fluctuated over time ... In 2007, just 6 percent of OIS suspects were unarmed. The most recent year of complete data, 2013, shows that 20 percent of OIS suspects were unarmed." 


Race of suspects in officer involved shootings, 2007-2013, Philadelphia Police Department

Percentage of unarmed and armed suspects in officer involved shootings, 2007-2013, Philadelphia Police Department

Race of officers in officer involved shootings, 2007-2013, Philadelphia Police Department


The police districts with the most officer involved shootings between 2007 and 2013, were Districts 22 and 25. There were 55 officer involved shootings in District 22 during that time frame; the worst years were 2011 and 2012, which each had 10 OIS incidents. There were 41 officer involved shootings in the same period in District 25; the worst year was 2012 when 12 OIS incidents took place.

Those districts contain some of the lowest median incomes in all of Philadelphia, and not coincidentally, are either primarily Black or Black and Latino. In the charts below, zip codes 19121 and 19132 are District 22; zip codes 19133 and 19140 are District 25.


Percentage of Latino and Black population in Police Districts with highest OIS incidence (22 and 25)

Median income and percentage of households living at or below poverty in Police Districts with highest OIS incidence (22, 25)


North Philly: The groundwork of mistrust

Which comes first: excessive force or impunity?

Either way the costs of each— human, material and in trust — are enormous

According to the collaborative news blog MuckRock, since 2009, "the city of Philadelphia has paid out more than $40 million in damages and settlements as a result of nearly 600 misconduct lawsuits brought against the police department ... Shooting settlements made up 34 percent of the total payouts, followed closely by excessive force cases at 33 percent." Those payments come out of taxpayer dollars.

The blog goes on to say that the amount is substantially more than what was paid out during the same time period by police departments in much larger cities, like New York. 

Not included in those totals is the settlement awarded to Najee Rivera, a 23-year-old Latino who in May of 2013 was dragged off his scooter by police officers, brutally beaten, and then charged with aggravated assault and resisting arrest.

After Rivera's arrest, his girlfriend went to the area of North Philadelphia where the brutalization had taken place, and found surveillance video that completely contradicted the police reports. Assault charges were dropped against Rivera and the two cops were put on desk duty until Feb. 5, 2015, when they were suspended and charged with Aggravated Assault, Simple Assault, Criminal Conspiracy, Recklessly Endangering Another Person, Tampering with Public Records or Information, False Reports to Law Enforcement Authorities, Obstructing Administration of Law, and Official Oppression.

Rivera agreed to a $200,000 settlement from the city, but has since been arrested on unrelated charges. Who knows if he will ever see any of the money the city offered as compensation for what he endured at the hands of its police.

There is no guarantee in Philadelphia that either incriminating video or criminal charges will be enough to keep a cop with a history of brutality off the police force — the Fraternal Order of Police is a powerful union in a traditional union town that mostly lionizes its cops. Human Rights Watch, in the mid 1990s, reported that, "The Fraternal Order of Police is exceptionally powerful in Philadelphia — some say it has more control of the police than the Police Commissioner does. ... A spokesman of the FOP, who did not wish to be named, told Human Rights Watch that in 90 percent of disciplinary challenges, FOP wins after a finding that the officer was 'improperly dismissed.'"

In 2013 Lt. Jonathan Josey was reinstated in the Philadelphia Police Department, even after video of him punching Aida Guzman in the face after the Puerto Rican Day Parade went viral. After Josey was exonerated by a judge with ties to the police department (who also made discriminatory remarks about the Puerto Rican neighborhood in North Philly where the incident occurred), Guzman agreed to a $75,000 settlement from the city, and not long after, Josey was again patrolling the streets.

And we won't even get into the gang of Narcotics cops — who made it habit to roust bodegas and harass bodegueros — whose investigation wasn't complete when the statute of limitations ran out ....


South Philly: A different fear

Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter signed an executive order in 2014 limiting the city's cooperation with ICE, but for the Latino immigrant community in South Philly, the apprehension about police collaboration with immigration agents lingers. ICE numbers released in 2013, indicate that in 2012 the ICE field office in Philadelphia had 999 people in detention, 336 of them detained with final deportation orders.

Juntos, a South Philadelphia community organization that advocates for immigrants, has claimed that there continues to be collaboration between police and ICE in counties abutting Philadelphia County.

Left out of the conversation

In January, U.S. General Attorney Eric Holder visited Philadelphia to hold a roundtable on building trust between law enforcement and the communities they serve. Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter, Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey —co-chairman of the President's Task Force on 21st Century Policing — and U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, Zane David Memeger, were also at the table. There were no Latinos among the 22 other panelists gathered for the discussion.

When AL DÍA News Media questioned the omission, local officials blamed the DOJ, which organized the event and compiled the list of panelists; the DOJ did not comment on whether any of the similar roundtables held in Atlanta, Cleveland, Memphis, Chicago and Oakland included any representatives from Latino community organizations among the panelists.

Cultivating the trust and collaboration with the Latino communities in North and South Philly to mitigate existing mistrust and fear (ultimately reducing the possibility of future incidences of OIS) is going to require that the Philadelphia Police Department better leverage its existing partnerships with Latino community organizations or engage civilian community liaisons, and that it practice the type of focused outreach outlined by the Vera Institute of Justice's EPIC project.

And it might just mean schooling the DOJ on the fact that there must be Latinos at the table when building trust between community and police is up for discussion.


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