SALINAS (KCBS)— Civil rights attorney John Burris announced in San Francisco Tuesday that he has asked a special unit of the U.S. Department of Justice to look into the fatal shootings of four Hispanic men by Salinas police since March.
Family members of two of those men, who Burris is representing, also urged the investigation and claimed a pattern of police brutality.
Burris represents Frank Alvarado Jr.’s family and the family of Carlos Mejia, 44, who was shot and killed by officers on May 20 after he allegedly pointed the blades of gardening shears at them.
Alvarado was 40 at the time of his death when he was shot and killed by Salinas Police on May 9th. Police said he brandished a knife and pointed it in their direction.
His father claimed his son only had his cell phone on him.
“I ask justice for my son and for the other three people that have been killed just like my son; with no mercy,” he said.
Burris said Alvarado had been released from prison and “was trying to turn his life around”.
Mejia’s family members said he didn’t threaten police. The shooting was caught on a video taken from a witness’s cell phone. The graphic sights and sounds of that incident made the rounds on YouTube.
Burris, an Oakland-based attorney, said the shootings are examples of police brutality.
“Something is going on in that department that has raised real questions,” Burris said. “We want to find out whether these shootings were a pattern of discriminatory law enforcement or four isolated incidents.”
“What we want is that the unjustified shootings stop,” he added. “The community needs reassurance that there is not discriminatory law enforcement and that it is not open season on Latinos.”
Burris said he sent his request Monday to Jonathan Smith, chief of the Special Litigation Section of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division.
The unit is one of 11 sections of the department’s Civil Rights Division. It does not conduct criminal prosecutions, but specializes in protecting civil rights in certain areas including citizens’ interactions with police. The section is skilled in looking for patterns of civil rights violations, Burris said.
Burris said that if the section takes up his request and finds that deadly force is being used in a discriminatory way, it could monitor the Police Department, set up an independent monitor or authorize revisions in the department’s practices.
The Justice Department had no immediate comment on its response to Burris’s letter.
Monterey County District Attorney Dean Flippo said on July 10 that his office, at the request of Salinas police Chief Kelly McMillin, has directly taken over the investigation of the Alvarado’s fatal shooting, that day.
The other fatal police shootings are being investigated by the Police Department. In all four cases, the district attorney will decide any officers should be prosecuted.
The police chief seemed to be confident his department has nothing to hide.
“If the Department of Justice decided to investigate the Salinas Police Department (and I think that’s unlikely) they would find a well-trained, professional, compassionate police department,” said Police Chief McMillin.
McMillin had previously said in May, “I welcome any investigation of any allegation of misconduct. The Salinas Police Department is an open book.”
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