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Killing Of Four Latino Men Sparks Protests In Salinas, Calif.

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.

Update at 12:45 p.m. ET. on Aug. 6: Response From Salinas PD:

A spokesman for the Salinas Police Department, Spencer Critchley, responded:

"The headline of your story, and what follows from that headline, is based on the assumption that it's significant that the four people shot by Salinas police this year were Latinos.

"In Salinas, nearly eight out of 10 people are Latinos. And for socio-economic reasons, more than nine out of 10 of the small number of people who commit violent crimes are Latinos. So anyone who does anything in Salinas, including all the good things, is likely to be Latino, and so is anyone who has an interaction with the police."

Regarding our statement that Chief Kelly McMillin rejects a federal investigation of the shooting incidents, Critchley said:

"I don't think that's the meaning intended by the KQED story your piece is based on. The Chief requested that both the FBI and the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice review the investigations of two of the recent shootings. He has not rejected an investigation of the department, he has said he believes it's unlikely that the DOJ will follow up on Mr. Burris' call for one. He believes that if it did, it would find a department of highly trained, compassionate officers."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Richard Gonzales is NPR's National Desk Correspondent based in San Francisco. Along with covering the daily news of region, Gonzales' reporting has included medical marijuana, gay marriage, drive-by shootings, Jerry Brown, Willie Brown, the U.S. Ninth Circuit, the California State Supreme Court and any other legal, political, or social development occurring in Northern California relevant to the rest of the country.

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