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Community Demands Answers in Police Killing of Undocumented Texas Man

A spate of police shootings show how undocumented people are vulnerable to police abuse due to fears of deportation.

Community members and organizers with the Next Generation Action Network protest outside the Grapevine, Texas, City Hall on March 10, 2015. The group is calling for Grapevine police officials to release the dash-camera video of Officer Robert Clark's fatal shooting of Rubén García Villalpando.

“Are you going to kill me?” That was the last thing Rubén García Villalpando reportedly asked Grapevine, Texas, Police Officer Robert Clark before Clark answered his question — in the affirmative. According to witnesses, García Villalpando had his hands up when Clark shot him twice, February 20, in Euless, Texas, a city technically outside the officer’s jurisdiction.

Clark’s shooting of García Villalpando echoes what has become an all-too-familiar, tragic tale across the nation amid a national debate on the policing tactics used in communities of color, sparked initially by the killing of Michael Brown and subsequent uprising in Ferguson, Missouri.

Fernando Romero, García Villalpando’s brother-in-law, told Truthout his family hasn’t received any communication for about two weeks from either the Grapevine Police Department (GPD) or the Euless Police Department, which is currently handling the criminal investigation of the shooting.

“[Officer Clark] escalated the situation for no reason,” Romero told Truthout. “The police officer could have taken different actions. He could have told [Rubén] to get on the ground or to put his hands on the back of the car, any number of [actions], not just waiting for [Rubén] to approach him and then shoot him.”

García Villalpando was a father of four and was known as a dedicated family man in the community before he was killed last month. Romero told Truthout his sister, García Villalpando’s widow, is wracked with the grief of her husband’s loss and has been unable to work. Romero and other family members have had to step in to support his nephews, since García Villalpando was the family’s primary provider.

Clark was responding to a burglar alarm that went off in an office building in Grapevine, but after investigating the business office at 3500 William D. Tate Avenue, Clark reported over a police radio that the call had been a false alarm and that the building had not been broken into. Shortly thereafter, according to Grapevine Police Spokesman Sgt. Robert Eberling, Clark observed García Villalpando’s car in the office complex parking lot and turned on his patrol lights.

García Villalpando’s car then left the parking lot and was chased by Clark’s patrol vehicle, weaving in and out of traffic until finally coming to a stop on the shoulder of the a service road, according to GPD’s Eberling and witnesses. García Villalpando then reportedly got out of his car with his hands in the air as Clark commanded him to stop moving.

Sgt. Eberling claims that Clark’s dash-camera video (which has not been made public) shows García Villalpando moving toward Clark until he moved out of view of the camera. Shortly after, Clark shot García Villalpando twice in the chest. He was taken to John Peter Smith hospital in Fort Worth, where he later died of his injuries. Clark has been placed on administrative leave pending an investigation into the incident.

Romero, who has seen the video, said it shows that García Villalpando had his back turned to the officer with his hands on his back, apparently waiting for the officer cuff him, but then Clark ordered García Villalpando to turn around and approach him, which was when García Villalpando stepped out of the camera’s view.

No independent verification of these events can take place, because — to the consternation of community activists and García Villalpando’s family — Grapevine police have not released the video of what transpired that night, as recorded by Clark’s dash-camera. Grapevine police officials had previously indicated they would release the video after Euless police officials finished interviewing witnesses, but later the Tarrant County District Attorney’s Office asked that the video not be made public while the investigation was ongoing.

Meanwhile, a cellphone video taken by a motorist immediately following the shooting shows García Villalpando lying on the ground as several police officers stand around him, not offering assistance. Juan Pablo Chico, the motorist who shot the video as he was driving by the scene, said he later witnessed García Villalpando lifting his head up as if to ask for help.

Euless detectives have interviewed at least 28 people, including witnesses and family members, and plan to interview one more person. Officials are still waiting on an autopsy report, as well as a forensics report that would reveal García Villalpando’s proximity to Clark when he was shot, said Lt. Eric Starnes, with the Euless Police Department’s criminal investigation division.

Activists Demand Release of Video

Community activists from around across North Texas have galvanized around García Villalpando’s shooting as just the latest police killing that fits into a larger pattern of racist, institutionalized violence perpetrated against communities of color. Activists say García Villalpando’s case highlights the particular vulnerabilities that undocumented immigrants face during encounters with police, which put them, like many other people of color, at a disproportionate risk of police violence.

More than 200 protesters stormed a Grapevine City Council meeting on March 3, chanting, “Hands up! Don’t Shoot!” in unison and demanding Officer Clark’s firing. Protesters carried signs with García Villalpando’s last words — as reported by Romero — painted across them: “Are You Going to Kill Me?”

Community members and activists with the Grand Prairie-based Next Generation Action Network have vowed to return to Grapevine City Hall every Tuesday night until police officials release the video of the shooting.

“If the Tarrant County DA wants to be able to display community transparency, and [Tarrant County DA Sharen Wilson] wanted to serve the public, they would be releasing this video,” Dominique Alexander, president and co-founder of the Action Network told Truthout on March 10, the anniversary of the day his own uncle was shot to death by a Dallas police officer five years ago. The GPD has released videos for shooting incidents several times before, he says.

The details of Clark’s encounter with García Villalpando sound painfully familiar — from reports that García Villalpando had his hands up, to officials admitting Clark used profanity when addressing García Villalpando, to the fact that Clark had several disciplinary problems during his former stint as a police officer with the DFW Airport police force and had previously been rejected for hire by the Addison Police Department.

According to documents obtained by the Dallas Morning News, in the eight months Clark spent as an officer with the DFW Airport police, he racked up three policy violations, including inappropriate use of his police powers during an off-duty altercation and failing to disclose an off-duty courtesy officer gig that he worked in exchange for a discount on his rent.

“[Grapevine police] say they wanted to give him a second chance. They didn’t give a second chance to my brother-in-law. They killed him. Why are they hiring people like that?” Romero said.

Shootings of Undocumented Immigrants Angers Mexico

García Villalpando was not the only undocumented immigrant to be shot by a police officer last month, and Mexico’s foreign ministry has taken notice.

After two other Mexican nationals were shot by police officers in California and Washington State, Mexico’s foreign ministry has called on the Justice Department to investigate the shootings in all three cases, saying the incidents can’t be seen as isolated.

Ministry officials told reporters at the Guardian that, “The government of Mexico has called the Justice Department of the United States to follow the investigations of these cases through its Civil Rights Division and provide assurances that they are conducted with transparency and, if necessary, that civil and criminal responsibilities are established.”

In California, three Santa Ana police officers shot Ernesto Javier Canepa Díaz February 27 during their investigation into an apparent robbery. The three officers have been placed on administrative leave pending an investigation by the district attorney’s office.

In Washington State, Pasco police fatally shot Antonio Zambrano Montes, who was unarmed, 17 times on February 10. Police alleged that Zambrano Montes was throwing rocks at traffic. A video of the event shows, at the time of the shooting, Zambrano Montes running from police with his hands in the air.

Immigrant rights advocates have echoed the Mexican foreign ministry’s calls for the Justice Department to investigate the cases but are also quick to point out the pervasive human rights abuses, including torture and kidnappings, committed by Mexican law enforcement and security agencies.

Advocates highlighted the disappearance of 43 students and the deaths of six others last September, when a bus was attacked by police officers in Iguala, Guerrero, Mexico. The 43 students, who attended the college of Ayotzinapa, are presumed dead.

“There is grave concern in general by the international community of the corruption that may exist in the Mexican government, but I don’t think that justifies not doing the full investigation of the shootings,” said Vicki Gaubeca, who directs the Regional Center for Border Rights at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of New Mexico., the nation’s largest online Latino organizing group has also called for the Justice Department to investigate not just the killing of undocumented immigrants, but of U.S. Latinos, in the aftermath of the its report on systemic racism in Ferguson’s police department, drawing attention to another recent police shooting of Jessie Hernandez, an unarmed teenager in Denver, Colorado.

“For far too long, Latinos, African Americans and other people of color have faced extreme and disproportionate force for simply living their day to day lives or for minor crimes — this is unacceptable and has resulted in numerous tragic preventable deaths of our young people. We hope that Denver, Colorado, where 17-year-old Jessie Hernandez was murdered, and Pasco, Washington, where Antonio Zambrano Montes was murdered, will be next on the DOJ’s investigation list,” said Presente Executive Director Arturo Carmona in a press release.

Police-perpetrated shootings of undocumented immigrants and U.S. Latinos are becoming increasingly common in both the southwest Mexican border region — at the hands of security agencies such as U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) — and throughout the rest of the country, at the hands of municipal police officers.

Border Shootings of Undocumented Immigrants

The ACLU’s Gaubeca, who is also a member of the Southern Border Communities Coalition, has been tracking the number of deaths and injuries that have occurred during encounters with CBP along the southwest border since January 2010, including off-duty encounters and instances in which CBP officers were acting as backup.

From January 2010 through February 18, 2015, she has recorded 61 such use-of-force incidents. Of the 40 fatal encounters Gaubeca has recorded during this time, 25 have resulted in the deaths of undocumented immigrants or Mexican nationals in Mexico and 15 resulted in the deaths of U.S. citizens.

In at least nine of these fatalities, CBP officials have alleged undocumented immigrants or Mexican nationals were throwing rocks at the time of the encounter. CBP’s policy of shooting at migrants who throw rocks came under sharp criticism in 2013, when a law enforcement think tank, the Police Executive Research Forum, was hired to review CBP’s use-of-force policies and recommended CBP agents use restraint when encountering rock throwers.

But the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) inspector general blacked out key portions of the think tank’s call for increased use of restraint when it released its own report publicly in September 2013.

Throughout this time, organizers with the Communities Coalition, a coalition of border residents and families of CBP shooting victims, have met with CBP officials and proposed a series of transparency, accountability and oversight reforms. The Communities Coalition’s efforts have spurred congressional inquiries. The group’s efforts have also led to a revision of CBP’s Use of Force Manual and more recently, the instituting of body-worn cameras in some areas.

The Communities Coalition fought to get CBP’s Use of Force Manual unsealed through Freedom of Information Act requests and then reviewed cases of CBP shootings to see if the agency had complied with its own use-of-force policies. Organizers found that in many instances, the agency hadn’t, and many of those violations were during encounters with rock throwers or moving vehicles. The Communities Coalition pursued administrative complaints against the agency, leading CBP to reopen 15 use-of-force cases.

“We are very far away from getting to a place where the agency is a professional agency, an accountable agency, a transparent agency, but we have seen the agency take steps in that direction,” Communities Coalition Director Christian Ramirez told Truthout.

The Communities Coalition started tracking the CBP’s use-of-force encounters because the agency itself was not doing so, despite the fact that releasing such information regarding police-perpetrated shootings is a common practice among many municipal police departments. Not a single Border Patrol agent has ever been disciplined or fired as a result of a shooting death or other use-of-force encounter.

Ramirez told Truthout that CBP told Communities Coalition organizers it would commit to tracking cases in which deadly force is used, but it has not released those figures publicly. The Coalition said its activists can’t track use-of-force encounters of immigrants in detention or those that occur in rural areas where there are no witnesses. CBP did not respond to a request for comment.

Ramirez points to the increasing militarization of the southwest border as a driving force behind increased killings of undocumented immigrants and Mexican nationals at the hands of CBP agents.

CBP’s 301 facilities deploy more than 20,000 Border Patrol agents to staff more than 1,500 surveillance towers and along 650 miles of fencing at the southwest border. CBP works alongside many other federal agencies at the border, using emerging surveillance technologies to track the movement of undocumented immigrants.

Ramirez noted that the federal government has complete control over how CBP operates and can compel it to use the same accountability measures that many municipal police departments use, such as civilian oversight in the form of review boards, requiring body-worn cameras, and mandatory reporting requirements for use-of-force incidents.

“There’s no doubt that our government has embarked on a sinister campaign of persecution [against undocumented people],” Ramirez said. “I remember what [an undocumented friend] said to me, that, ‘We have a thousand boards over our head every day as undocumented people, and we don’t know which board is going to fall on top of us: the board of deportation, of being afraid of police, of being afraid of the school teacher, of being afraid.’ There’s this sense of vulnerability and uncertainty that has further victimized undocumented folks.”

Ramirez said this sense of fear within the undocumented community has intensified under the Obama administration because it has deported more than 2 million people, more than any other administration. Even as the Obama administration has pushed for executive action to provide deportation relief, deportations rates have skyrocketed, and the DHS has increasingly relied on for-profit detention to incarcerate an influx of undocumented mothers and children fleeing Central American countries.

“It’s this constant fear that you [as an undocumented immigrant] have nowhere to turn. If you are a victim of crime, who do you turn to? If you need first responders, who do you call?” Ramirez said.

Police Shootings, Race and Documentation

While the FBI counts how many police officers are killed on the job, the agency doesn’t keep any national count or database tracking police killings of civilians in the U.S. Because no database is kept, the breakdown of police-perpetrated shootings by race is hard to pin down, but according to a report from the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, a Black person is killed by police or vigilantes every 28 hours.

While Congress reauthorized the Death in Custody Reporting Act at the end of last year requiring states receiving federal law enforcement funding to report deaths of those detained, arrested or incarcerated, anti-police violence activists point out that police departments that do not receive federal funding don’t have to comply with the mandate, and say it remains unclear if other departments will be compelled to do so. Even so, it could still take many years before the data is collected, compiled and made public.

Brian Burghart, a journalism professor at the University of Nevada, launched the database Fatal Encounters last year to keep count of a widening death toll that federal authorities have failed to track. His database relies heavily on the use of media reports of police-perpetrated killings and public records requests on deadly force incidents.

Burghart’s database is one of three major non-governmental, crowdsourced databases counting police-perpetrated killings. The records from all three databases have recently been combined in the Mapping Police Violence project, which looks at police killings from May 2013 through the present, using data collected from Fatal Encounters, the U.S. Police Shootings Database and Killed by Police.

From May 2013 to the present, the statistics showed that at least 278 Latinos were killed during the months measured, accounting for 12.7 percent of all police killings. Latinos make up about 16 percent of the U.S. population.

Of the 278 Latinos killed by police, the number of those who were undocumented could not be measured, because the numbers are compiled primarily from media reports which do not always note a person’s immigration status, but immigrant advocates say the number is not insignificant and that undocumented people’s fears of deportation put them at increased risk of police violence.

Romero told Truthout he believes a major reason García Villalpando gave chase to Clark in his vehicle that night was because he was afraid of being deported and torn away from his family. In this context, Romero said, it makes sense that he saw the possibility of evading Clark as potentially worth the risk.

This fear of deportation is one Romero once knew himself.

“Every single time I would step out of my house, I was really afraid of what would happen if [the police] stopped me without [driver’s] license,” Romero said. “Because if immigrants would have a chance to have a license, … we wouldn’t be so afraid because we [would] have some documentation. We have something to prove that we can drive.”

Due to the fact that there is no comprehensive data for how many undocumented people are shot by police at municipal departments throughout the U.S., Burghart has received a grant to launch a Spanish-language version of his database next month, which will collect public records and media reports of undocumented people killed by security forces along the southwest border.

But even if comprehensive data on police-perpetrated killings by race was tracked and police officers and Border Patrol agents wore body cameras, activists wonder if it’s possible to end violence against people of color and immigrants in a society that does not recognize them as fully human.

“The vulnerability of undocumented immigrants put them at a much bigger risk because not only are they afraid of contacting local law enforcement … when they are shot and killed, if they happen to be an undocumented immigrant, there’s almost a sense that, ‘Well, these people are criminals. They got what they deserved,'” says Ramirez of the Communities Coalition. “They have been dehumanized to a huge degree.”