Salinas officer-involved shootings prompt protests, calls for calm

Regional officers help Salinas police on Wednesday amid protests over officer-involved shootings.
(David Royal / AP)

Salinas Police Chief Kelly McMillin on Thursday sought to calm community tensions over two fatal officer-involved shootings of Latino immigrants this month that triggered violent protests.

McMillin said at a news conference his office would complete its investigation of both shootings and then forward them to the FBI and U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division for further assessment.

“There are clearly concerns about them in the community,” McMillin said. “I think it’s in everyone’s interest to just put some more eyes on them.”


The incidents--particularly the most recent shooting Tuesday--have spurred anxiety and anger in the east Salinas neighborhood of Alisal. Residents have launched a petition calling for an end to what they consider police use of excessive force in their neighborhood.

The department generally averages one officer-involved shooting per year, McMillin said, but there have been three this year. In late March, 42-year-old Angel Ruiz was shot and killed outside a Wing Stop restaurant after he refused to obey commands and pulled a replica gun from his waistband, police said.

On May 9, officers shot and killed 26-year-old Osman Hernandez, a farm worker, in a Mi Pueblo parking lot as he wielded a lettuce knife. And on Tuesday, a man with garden shears was gunned down after waving them in the air as he walked toward a busy intersection and, police said, lunging at officers.

Police identified him Thursday as Carlos Mejia, 44, from El Salvador, and said he had been arrested last October for being drunk in public and again in January for being drunk in public and resisting arrest.

Police received a call Tuesday afternoon that a man matching Mejia’s description had attempted to break into a home and attacked a woman’s pet. They found him walking down the sidewalk. He ignored commands in Spanish and English, they say, and two attempts to strike him with a Taser failed.

A video of the shooting taken by a 19-year-old criminal justice student quickly went viral and was widely reported.

Crowds amassed to protest Wednesday, and the gathering turned violent. Patrol cars were damaged. And when a 23-year-old man walked onto his porch to watch the protest, he was gunned down in front of an estimated 100 witnesses in an apparent gang-related incident.

A police officer who arrived on scene began performing CPR but had to stop when someone in the crowd hurled a bottle at the officer’s head, injuring him. The shooting victim was rushed to the hospital but died.

Amid pledges for community outreach and transparency Thursday, city leaders also made it clear that such behavior was unacceptable.

“The fact that I saw that young officer injured and the fact that he was injured trying to save a life, some people should hang their heads in disgrace today,” said Salinas Mayor Joe Gunter, who called on community leaders in Alisal to control violent elements.

Despite the large crowd that witnessed Wednesday night’s shooting, none have come forward, police said.

State Assemblyman Luis Alejo (D-Watsonville) drove from Sacramento to attend Thursday’s news conference and appealed to the community in English and Spanish for healing.

“To residents of the beautiful east side of Salinas, we are listening,” he said. “I recognize the pain and the hurt. At the same time we need our community to keep calm, to keep the peace and allow this investigation to move forward.”