Crime & Justice

Killing of 4 Latino men sparks protests in Salinas

Giant wooden murals of farmworkers are seen at 'The Farm' February 9, 2005 in Salinas, California.
Giant wooden murals of farmworkers are seen at 'The Farm' February 9, 2005 in Salinas, California.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

After police in Salinas, Calif., shot and killed four Latino men since March, local authorities are rejecting demands for a federal investigation. Salinas Police Chief Kelly McMillin told NPR member station KQED that even though his department "has nothing to hide," a federal review would be premature since internal investigations of the shootings are still pending.

But the killings, including one captured on video on May 20, have soured police-community relations in a city that bills itself as the "Salad Bowl of the World." In that incident, 44-year-old Carlos Mejia was waving a pair of garden shears at officers before he was fatally shot.

More recently, 39 year old parolee Frank Alvarado, was shot and killed on July 11 after authorities said he approached officers pointing a cellphone. The police apparently thought it was a weapon.

Two other men, 26 year old Osman Hernandez and 42 year old Angel Ruiz were killed by Salinas police on May 9 and March 20 respectively.

The series of fatal shootings have sparked angry protests and demonstrations in a community of about 150,000 people. Salinas is also 75 percent Latino.

Calls for a federal inquiry into the killings began in May, but they were amplified recently when Oakland-based civil rights attorney John Burris announced that he has requested action by the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division.

"We want to find out whether these shootings were a pattern of discriminatory law enforcement or four isolated incidents," said Burris. The shootings are "uncalled for, questionable, and alarming," he added.

The Justice Department had no comment on Burris' request.

Burris issued his call for an investigation on the steps of the federal courthouse in San Francisco, not Salinas. He was joined by relatives and supporters of the slain men, including community activist Margaret Bonetti.

"The community is not trusting the local police department. We're here in San Francisco because we feel we'll get more justice here then we will out of Salinas," said Bonetti.

Salinas Police Chief McMillin defends his officers and rejects accusations of racism.

"We weren't racially profiling anyone. We were responding in every case to calls for service because of the actions of these individuals. They identified themselves by acting violently and frightening, terrorizing the people around them," he said.