Why aren’t more people talking about Latinos killed by police?
As videos of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile — two African-American men shot and killed by police last week –went viral and their names became hashtags, many called out a lack of media attention for Latinos who were killed by officers that same week. Organizations like the National Council of La Raza (NCLR), Voto Latino and even Black Lives Matter, are raising awareness of police use-of-force in Latino communities. Police killings of brown people often go underreported, says Eric Rodriquez, vice president of the NCLR’s office of research, advocacy, and legislation.
“In American history, racial conflict has largely played out in black and white. But the history is much more complicated, [leaving] out Native Americans, as well as Asians and Hispanics,” said Aaron Fountain, historian of youth activism at Indiana University. “Americans don’t see any kind of historical context when Latinos are victims of state violence, despite the fact that there is historical context there.”
While blacks and Hispanics have interactions with police at rates proportional to their population, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, both groups are over-represented when it comes to traffic searches and arrests. Hispanics, for example, make up 17.6 percent of the U.S. population but represent 23 percent of all searches and nearly 30 percent of arrests.
Among minorities, the rate of police killings for Latinos is second to those of African-Americans. As of today, an estimated 94 Latinos have been killed by police in 2016 alone, making up 16 percent of the 585 police-involved killings this year. In contrast, people who are black or African-American are only 13.3 percent of the U.S. population, but 144 black Americans have been killed by police in 2016. At 25 percent, those deaths represent a disproportionate number of officer-involved fatalities compared to the population.
It’s worth noting a person can be both Latino and black. And sometimes a victim’s race may not be disclosed at all, creating potential for incidents involving both Latinos and black Americans to be underreported, Rodriguez said. Many national databases are dependent on self-reported statistics from local and state agencies, making them potentially incomplete.
“There’s lots of challenges in reporting cases for the Latino community in particular, because of questions around identity. We just don’t have enough information to document all the cases that are occurring, certainly not by race and ethnicity,” said Rodriguez. “But there’s a recognition more broadly that deaths at the hands of law enforcement are having too many racialized outcomes.”
Fountain also attributes the lack of attention to what he calls “a poor track record of coverage” by Latino political organizations and media outlets. Whereas many of the high-profile cases of black Americans killed in police custody reached the national spotlight after sparking outrage among black media and activist groups, “there tends to be a general absence” in coverage by Latino groups. “And if they’re not covering it, it’s pretty hard to see how national media will come upon it,” Fountain said.
NCLR’s Rodriguez disagrees. “I would hesitate to blame communities themselves for lack of accountability,” he said. “What that does, essentially, is say that the onus to achieve justice is on the community itself. Latinos have a right to equal justice in their communities and equal attention to justice.”
Because Americans may not know the extensive history of Latinos in the United States and their struggle for civil rights, Fountain and Rodriguez both say the national focus on Latino issues is too limited. It can often revolve solely around immigration, particularly undocumented immigrants, who make up just 16 percent of the Latino population. “As if the other 84 percent of the population isn’t impacted by the issue,” Fountain says.
Rodriguez adds that sometimes immigration can compound issues of police brutality. “Local-level law enforcements were signing agreements to act as immigration enforcement agents in many communities,” he said. “So they were empowered to do things that, in some ways, would enhance the probability of abuse and profiling.”
Both Fountain and Rodriguez say the public debate on police brutality, portrayed by the media as focusing solely on black and white, silences the voices of Latinos.
“The movement for black lives is doing something important, elevating all minority lives. And that’s a critical part of the solution,” Rodriguez says. “But if our response is narrow and limited, the national response will be narrow and limited as well. And that’s problematic as we move toward a country that is increasingly diverse.”
Here are five reported cases of Latinos who were killed by police during the same week as Alton Sterling and Philando Castile.
On July 3, two undercover California Highway Patrol officers, dressed in plain clothes, chased an unarmed, 19-year-old man named Pedro Villanueva. Their unmarked car pursued his pickup truck for 5 miles to a dead-end street. As Villanueva made a U-turn back toward their direction, the officers opened fire. According to the Los Angeles Times, Villanueva was shot several times and died at the scene. A passenger was shot in the arm but survived.
Although he was part of a larger surveillance sting aimed at cracking down on illegal street racing, authorities acknowledge Villanueva may not have known he was being followed by police officers. As the patrol moved in, Villanueva fled and was then followed by the unmarked patrol car. Shooting a moving vehicle is permissible under California Highway Patrol’s use-of-force policy, but is banned by many law enforcement agencies nationwide and is largely considered ineffective and dangerous by law enforcement experts.
Family, friends and outraged supporters are protesting Villanueva’s killing, questioning the patrol officers’ decision to shoot.
“An unmarked CHP car pulls out, how do you expect a guy to stop when he doesn’t know who’s in the car,” Indigenous rights activist, Naui Huitzilopotchtli told The Orange County Register at an organized protest. “If this would have been a guy from Newport Beach or Yorba Linda, they wouldn’t have done this. This is another person of color, another unarmed man shot. We’re here to stand up with people of color.”
On July 5, Melissa Ventura, a mother of three, was shot by two sheriff’s deputies responding to a domestic disturbance at her home in Yuma, Arizona. The Arizona Republic reports the woman opened the door holding a knife as authorities arrived. She was then shot by both deputies and died en route to the hospital.
According to the Yuma Sun, Ventura had a history of mental illness and prior domestic violence related arrests. The officers remain on administrative leave pending an investigation.
— Azenith Smith (@AzenithKTVU) July 5, 2016
The 18-year-old was reportedly suicidal and had already attempted to shoot himself when he turned the gun on San Jose, California, police officers who had arrived to talk him down. He was then shot and killed by the officers. Police Chief Eddie Garcia told the local KGO-TV that officers attempted to intervene before shooting him:
“As the officers were approaching on scene, and the subject came out of the residence, the officers did not want to force a confrontation, which is why they tactically retreated, and why in these instances quite frankly, time is on our side. They wanted to slow it down. They did a good job of slowing it down.”
But family members question why other tactics, such as the use of a Taser, weren’t used, and why they weren’t allowed to see him prior to officer shooting him.
Police in Reno, Nevada, say they tried to pull over California native Raul Saavedra-Vargas as he drove the wrong way down a one-way street, refusing to stop. Instead, the 24-year-old drove toward a street closed to traffic due to a local festival full of pedestrians nearby. After Saavedra-Vargas’ minivan drove through a metal barricade, police fired multiple rounds into both sides of the van. Saavedra-Vargas then crashed into a festival booth. Authorities attempted to stabilize him on site but he died after being rushed to a local hospital. Authorities have not indicated whether Saavedra-Vargas was armed.
Witnesses told local KOLO that Saavedra-Vargas slowed down as he approached the barricade and didn’t appear to want to floor the vehicle into the crowd. Some festival-goers reported injuries when trying to flee the gunfire.
— ABC7 Eyewitness News (@ABC7) July 7, 2016
Thirty-six-year-old Vinson Ramos was the subject of a domestic disturbance call following an altercation at a Jack-in-the-Box restaurant in Bell, California, on July 7. He had fought with his pregnant girlfriend in front of their son before making his way to a 7-Eleven convenience store where police were ultimately called. Bell Police Department and L.A. Country Sheriff’s officials say Ramos was wielding a folding pocket knife and refused to comply when he was shot multiple times. He later died at an area hospital. Ramos’ aunt told local ABC-7 in Los Angeles that shooting him “seemed unnecessary.”
“We are grieving, and we don’t understand why three officers shot at him,” she said.
While his family says the shooting was excessive, several witnesses say Ramos lunged at police prior to them opening fire and threatened his girlfriend and their son.