In 2020, Antonio Valenzuela was 40 years old when he was stopped by the Las Cruces, New Mexico police. He fled on foot due to a probation violation. The officers chased and caught him, and subsequently placed him in a chokehold. After a brief struggle, he implored the officer to stop because he could not breathe. The officer is heard on the video saying, “I’m going to fu****g choke you out, bro.”
And he did — the officer choked him to death.
In 2020, Ernie Serrano experienced a mental health episode and wandered into a Stater Brothers store in Riverside, California. The police were called due to accounts of disruptive behavior — when officers arrived, they beat him with a baton and tasered him. After being forced down on a cash register, he warns officers that he could not breathe. His last words, bloodied and face down on a counter were, “I can’t breathe, man. Let me go … please let me go.” He died at the grocery store.
Although both of these incidents escalated quickly, and some may fault both men with resisting arrest, neither Valenzuela or Serrano’s pleas were acknowledged by the police and their deaths did not receive national attention.
Humerto Guizar, Ernie Serrano’s family attorney, summarized what can be concluded about both cases – these men were “being a nuisance, a bother, a pain in the ass,” but those actions do not give police the latitude to carry out a “death sentence.”
A 2022 analysis by the Washington Post demonstrates that Black Americans are killed at the highest rate (38 per 1 million) but that Latinos are killed at the highest second rate (28 per 1 million) — certainly not a ranking any group wishes to attain.
While the deaths of Black Americans are disproportionate, and our efforts to address these extrajudicial killings should continue, the less obvious question is why the killing of Latinos by the police does not receive any national attention?
The killings of Latinx individuals by the police have historically received little attention for various reasons, including: (1) the acquisition of northern territories transformed Latinx people from landowners into landless foreigners with few legal protections, (2) Latinx people do not have the power to shape images about their “criminality,” and (3) Latinx individuals are often segregated to barrios, where police violence is pervasive and hidden.
The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848 ended the Mexican/American war, and unintentionally made Latinx people landless outlaws in their country overnight. The following protections of the treaty would have prevented violence against Latinx communities: (1) automatic U.S. citizenship, (2) maintaining land rights, and (3) providing free movement from Mexico to the U.S. Mexicans became “illegal” despite owning northern lands for generations. The sentiment, “We did not cross the border, the border crossed us,” speaks volumes to the significant displacement of Latinx people after the treaty.
When Mexicans resisted violence and Anglo encroachment in the lands protected by the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, they were branded “bandidos” and were powerless to reframe images about their “criminality.” The Texas Rangers brutalized Latinx people – yet history books describe them as heroes. The Texas Rangers — which burned villages and slaughtered innocent people — committed war crimes and hunted runaway slaves — were remarkably similar to the Ku Klux Klan.
Without the power to tell their story, the lynchings of Latinx people have faded into history. The Texas rangers practiced the ley de fuga (law of escape), which gave them the license to kill anyone who resisted arrest. Due to a lack of official records, historians estimate that thousands of Mexicans were killed by the Texas Rangers from 1915 to 1920.
The lynching of Mexicans was also a public spectacle — in these images you can see boys smiling and adults posing — the best fun they had all summer.
In the 1930s and 40s, the images of Mexican “pachucos” became notorious — an emerging image of the criminal foreigner. During the Zoot Suit riots in the summer of 1943, American service men beat Latinx youth senselessly — police watched the violence and arrested the Latinx victims after the violence. By June 7 of the same year, mass lynchings of Mexicans were pervasive in the Los Angeles area — and these spread to Philadelphia, Chicago and Detroit. Latinx communities urged president Franklin D. Roosevelt to stop the unchecked wave of violence in their communities with no avail.
In more recent times, the Los Angeles police are notorious for the Rampart Scandal — officers were indicted for bank robberies, planting and falsifying evidence, stealing evidence, unjustified shootings, and had literally become a gang themselves in Latinx and Black communities. The Rampart police division is responsible for the largest police misconduct settlement in the city’s history. According to a 2021 report by Cal Matters, Latinx people made up 39% of the population in California but 46% of those killed by the police.
The patterns of violence by the police in Latinx communities are not limited to California, but often occur in segregated neighborhoods. A 2019 study on police shootings found that racial segregation was a powerful risk factor in police shootings. In fact, a 2022 meta-analysis revealed that: (1) as the percent of Latinos increased by 10%, the probability of police drawing their guns increased by 4.2%, and (2) police are more likely to use military equipment in neighborhoods with high concentrations of Blacks and Latinx people.
In racially mixed neighborhoods, police violence against Latinx people is also widespread. A 2018 study of 1,700 fatal interactions conducted by Washington State University revealed that Latinos faced the highest risk of being killed — more than any demographic — in gentrifying neighborhoods and those with little diversity. The report also showed that the race of the officer did not matter — and that neighborhoods with higher percentages of Latino officers posed the highest threat for Latino men. Today, police violence does not require an all-white police force. Instead, it is perpetuated by segregation and the exercise of white supremacy in defending homogenous or gentrifying communities from Latinx people’s intrusion.
What can be done to address police violence in Latinx communities. First, Black and Brown communities have a history of struggle and cooperation. These communities and their allies should form multiracial alliances to challenge police violence. As long as police violence is framed as a “Black and white” issue, this strategy will easily divide and conquer any movement, and undermine collaborations to create sustainable change.
Second, we must insist that reporting of killings by the police be made mandatory for all police departments. Currently, only 40% of police departments report police killings to the FBI. The true prevalence and incidence of Latinx people killed by police is unknown because police lump individuals into broader categories – white-looking Latinx individuals are often counted as white, and Afro-Latinx people counted as Black.
Police should not be automatically deployed to mental health calls — crisis response teams may be a better alternative. According to a report by the Rand Corporation in 2020, one officer said, “too many social problems … like mental health, substance abuse, and other social service needs … are often hefted onto the police: Police aren’t educated or trained as social workers.” Police intervention in mental health situations also inevitably leads to death.
Police violence should be framed as a public health concern, which has an significant impact not only the individuals killed and their families but also their communities. If we define police violence as a health problem, as opposed to “a few rotten apples,” then we can closely study and monitor the issue, as well as provide meaningful policy recommendations.
This essay is a call to action – to bring awareness to the longstanding record of police violence in Latinx communities. While many ethical and responsible officers exist, police violence cannot be attributed to the actions of a few rogue cops. Instead, the everlasting questioning of Latinx people’s belonging in the U.S., the unchallenged accounts of Latinx individuals’ criminality, and the veiled over-policing that occurs in segregated neighborhoods, has made Latinx neighborhoods vulnerable to police violence.