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Police killings of Hispanics spark protests in Salinas, California

By Michael Martinez, CNN
updated 10:31 PM EDT, Thu May 22, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: Police chief offers detail to help people better understand officers' killing of 1 man
  • NEW: He says authorities "recognize ... the anger," says such frustration is legitimate
  • Police in Salinas, California, have fatally shot three Hispanic men since March
  • Anti-police protests turn raucous Wednesday when police respond to a nearby shooting

(CNN) -- The central California city of Salinas is being rocked with unrest and violence after protesters accused police of racism and brutality in the fatal shootings of three Latino men since March, including one captured on grainy video this week.

Demonstrations peaked Wednesday night when a man was shot to death outside his home near an anti-police protest. The circumstances of that shooting, which did not involve police, are being investigated, police said.

When authorities responded to that homicide, demonstrators went to the scene and threw bricks, bottles, sticks and rocks at police and EMS personnel as they aided the shooting victim, police said. One bottle struck the head of an officer who was giving CPR to the victim, stopping him from giving aid, police said.

The shooting victim, Constantino Garcia, 23, who had just moved to Salinas with his wife and child, was pronounced dead at a hospital, police said. Detectives said about 100 people saw the homicide, but no witnesses are cooperating with police.

Salinas Police Chief Kelly McMillin holds the gardening shears used by a suspect who was shot by police on Tuesday.
Salinas Police Chief Kelly McMillin holds the gardening shears used by a suspect who was shot by police on Tuesday.

In Wednesday's protests, police arrested demonstrator Diego Garcia, 26, who was accused of taunting officers, antagonizing a police dog and urging the crowd to join him. He was arrested on accusations of inciting a riot, resisting arrest and probation violation, police said.

The rising tensions led Police Chief Kelly McMillin to hold a news conference Thursday afternoon in which he offered more details on one incident that has infuriated some and explained his department's approach to addressing it.

"They are frustrated, they are angry -- and legitimately," McMillin said. "I'm not going to tell anybody that you just don't understand what you see. They see it, they react to it, that could upset them."

The residents should be able to express their views, as should police, he added.

"We recognize that ... the anger of the community (is) coming out," said McMillin. "We're trying to explain ourselves as best we can and move on."

Most recent fatal shooting

The most recent officer-involved shooting happened Tuesday afternoon and ended in the death of a man who allegedly lunged at officers with gardening shears.

The man -- whom police identified Thursday as 44-year-old Carlos Mejia -- was accused of breaking into a woman's home and threatening her while armed with the shears, police said. The suspect also exposed himself to the woman and made sexually explicit statements, police said, adding that the man also tried to kill the woman's dog.

When police responded to a 911 call, the suspect was walking on Elkington Avenue and police noticed he had a large pair of gardening shears sticking out of his backpack, police said.

Rather than comply with officers, the man swung the gardening shears at the officers near him, according to police.

"It's a pretty common item, we see it all the time," McMillin said Thursday, holding up the shears. "...But the manner in which it was presented ... this clearly is a weapon and obviously a very dangerous one."

The officers "were dead set against allowing him to get into" a nearby bakery, fearful of the damage he could do there, according to the chief. One attempt to subdue him using a Taser ended in "a catastrophic failure," according to McMillin, and ultimately the officers fired on the suspect.

The man was pronounced dead on the scene.

From a distance, a witness took a videotape of the encounter between two police officers and the suspect, who walked away from police before being shot and killed. But the videotape wasn't clear on what had transpired between police and the man before the shooting. The video was posted on YouTube.

The police chief played that and other footage of the incident reporters, explaining that he did so to give the public a better sense of what happened. He said no final judgment has been made on whether the officers were "reasonable" in their use of deadly force.

"When people look at (this case), you don't (necessarily) get a lot of the details and you don't necessarily understand exactly what was happening," McMillin said. This new information was released "to make people understand why the officers did what they did, and just what the officers did."

March 20 shooting

The first officer-involved shooting occurred March 20, when police fatally shot a man with a gun under his sweatshirt in a restaurant parking lot, police said. Police had received a call about a suspicious person with a handgun.

"As the involved officers challenged the suspect, the suspect lifted his sweatshirt, brandishing a handgun at the officers. Fearing that the suspect was going to shoot, the involved officers shot the suspect, resulting in the suspect's death at the scene," police said. "Three Salinas police officers were involved in this incident and were not injured."

The fatally shot man was Angel Ruiz, who was armed with an Airsoft pellet gun, CNN affiliate KSBW reported.

May 9 shooting

On May 9, police received 911 calls about a man chasing people and waving a large knife, and after arriving on the scene, officers used a Taser on the suspect, Osman Hernandez, 26, who had no arrest history in Salinas, police said.

When they tried to put handcuffs on him, Hernandez "pulled up his shirt clearly exposing a large knife that was tucked into the area of his waistband," police said.

"Quickly, the suspect grabbed the knife and pulled it out towards the officers who were in close proximity to him while attempting to restrain him," police said.

Two officers shot Hernandez, who died at the scene, police said.

On Wednesday, Hernandez's family filed a claim against the city seeking $2 million in damages, KSBW reported, quoting the family's attorney.

"There is something seriously wrong. It's horrific. These men were shot down in cold blood," attorney Christopher Dolan told the station.

CNN's Greg Botelho, Jason Kravarik, Stephanie Elam and Carma Hassan contributed to this report.

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