Maria Lowrie has watched videos of her son’s death in police custody over and over again.
Sometimes she watches the images from an officer’s body camera. Sometimes she watches a bystander’s recording. She has watched them so many times that she can pinpoint the moment when her son, Ernie Serrano, took his final breath, she says.
“I don’t wish this for any mother, for any human being, to go through that. Something has got to be done so it doesn’t happen as often as it’s happening,” said Lowrie, of Los Angeles.
She doesn’t believe that her son, if he had been white, would have died Dec. 15 when sheriff’s deputies were called to a Riverside County grocery store for a disturbance.
Serrano, a 33-year-old Mexican American, was at a Stater Bros. market picking up snacks that night when the sheriff’s office received a report about a man — later identified as Serrano — wandering in and out of the store. Another 911 call reported him tussling with a security guard. Video from a bystander shows sheriff’s deputies beating Serrano with batons and using a Taser on him before wrestling him facedown onto a checkout counter.
Serrano is heard pleading “Let me go, please” several times in a body camera video, at one point saying “I can’t breathe” and “You’re using excessive force” in between cries of pain. Several minutes later, an officer notices that the man is not breathing. The officers place him on the floor and try to resuscitate him. He is pronounced dead at a hospital.
According to Sheriff Chad Bianco, the preliminary autopsy report suggests that Serrano died of a methamphetamine overdose; attorneys for the family, which has filed a wrongful-death lawsuit, say he died of asphyxiation.
Serrano’s death did not get much attention beyond the local news, but a review of databases that track police killings shows that while their cases have largely gone untold in the national discussion of police violence, Latinos are killed by police at nearly double the rate of white Americans. And while the national debate on police killings has focused on Black Americans, whose deaths at the hands of law enforcement have been high profile and outnumber those of other people of color, some activists say the situation for the Latino community has become critical.
“It’s a crisis, in the same manner as it’s a crisis in the Black community. … Chances are, if anybody is going to be getting killed, they’re going to be Black or Brown,” said Roberto Rodriguez, an associate professor at the University of Arizona who researches police brutality and was a victim himself in the late 1970s.
Experts cite several reasons the Latino community has often been left out of the debate about policing and reform. The historical legacy of police brutality against Black people is well-known and documented, dating back to the slave patrols. Many Americans view immigration as the primary concern of Latinos. The lack of a standardized system for reporting police killings means that Latino victims are often categorized as Black or white. In addition, Latinos as a group include a variety of cultures with different lived experiences.
“I think society has this notion that [police violence] is a Black and white issue, and not for Latinos. It’s kind of like, ‘That’s not your issue. Your issue is immigration,'” Rodriguez said. But the number of Latinos killed by police is “off the charts,” he said.
Since 2015, at least 1,058 Latinos have been fatally shot by police, according to a Washington Post database that tracks police shootings. In some cities, the disproportionate rate at which Latinos are killed by police is especially striking. In Chicago and Minneapolis, for example, Latinos are killed at six times the rate of white people, according to the database Mapping Police Violence. The same database found that Latinos are killed at a disproportionately higher rate compared to whites in 24 of the nation’s 50 largest cities.
Occasionally, the case of a Latino killed by police will land in the national spotlight. On March 29, 13-year-old Adam Toledo was fatally shot by a Chicago police officer during a foot chase. Video of the incident shows the officer chasing Adam through an alley, then ordering him to stop and show his hands. Adam appears to stop at an opening in a fence, turn and raise his hands as the officer fires once, striking the boy in the chest. Police say Adam was carrying a gun that was later recovered behind the fence where he had stopped. His family members and the attorneys representing them contend that whether Adam had a gun is irrelevant because he complied with the officer’s order and was unarmed when he was shot.
Advocates and attorneys say part of the reason Toledo’s death received widespread media attention was his age; it also occurred during the widely viewed murder trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin. But it was an exception.
“Everything in criminal justice seems to revolve around African American mistreatment, and rightfully so. But we also have a story to tell, and a similar experience, and I don’t think we’re getting enough coverage,” said Leonard Gonzalez, a current national vice chair and the former California chair of the League of United Latin American Citizens’ civil rights committee.
The data on Latinos killed by police probably vastly underrepresents reality, experts say. There is no comprehensive tally of police killings or use-of-force incidents maintained by the federal government. The FBI has begun an effort to collect more data on use of force, but participation by local police is voluntary. The agencies that do keep such statistics often fail to include Hispanic as an ethnic category, according to a 2016 report by the Urban Institute.
In addition, race and ethnicity designations, if included, are often filled out by law enforcement, which leaves room for error, said Claudia Ruiz, a civil rights policy analyst for the Latino advocacy group UnidosUS, formerly known as National Council of La Raza.
“So Latinos become obscured or erased within the data because white-passing Latinos will be marked as white or unknown, and Afro-Latinos will be marked as Black,” Ruiz said.
In The Post’s database — one of the most complete accounts of fatal shootings by police and drawn from law enforcement and local news reports, as well as monitoring of independent databases — three people with the last name Garcia and two with Lopez were not given racial or ethnic designations. There was also a Garcia who was listed as Black and two Lopezes who were labeled white.
Ruiz said the lack of data keeps Latinos in an unequal system, because meaningful solutions to racial inequity and criminal justice reform can’t be developed without having a complete view of the problem.
A new analysis released last week by UnidosUS found that since 2014, more than 2,600 Latinos were killed by police or died in custody. But the report — which was conducted by volunteer researchers, activists and family members of those killed by police, among others — says due to the limitations and flaws of law enforcement data, even this figure is likely an undercount.
Groups are also planning a Dia de los Muertos convention this year that will focus on police brutality against Latinos to help raise awareness, Rodriguez said.
In California, where Serrano lived, state data shows that Hispanics were 44 percent more likely to be perceived as armed by police — the greatest gap between perceived and confirmed cases of armed residents across racial and ethnic groups. The perception that a suspect is armed is more likely to draw a show of force from police. California, the nation’s most populous state, is about 40 percent Latino.
Some activists, including Humberto Guizar, an attorney for the Serrano family, said Latino culture also contributes to the lack of awareness around the issue. He said the community’s lack of engagement on issues of police brutality and killings was similar to its low voter turnout compared to Black Americans.
“We don’t generate as much of a hoopla and we don’t protest and make noise as much as the Black community does,” said Guizar, co-founder of the Justice X legal group. “For that, the blame should be placed where it belongs — on us, for not stepping up as much as the Black community does.”
Other advocates said some Latinos’ hesitancy to speak out and organize large protests — or even report crimes or record police brutality when they witness it — is rooted in fear of calling attention to their immigration status.
“They’re worried about, ‘Hey, am I going to get deported? Is somebody going to call immigration on me?’ And after all the sacrifices they made to get here, they don’t want to risk it,” said Adeena Weiss-Ortiz, an attorney for Toledo’s family.
But Marissa Barrera, a Mexican American whose brother was killed in police custody in 2017, said although they might not be highly visible, there are Latinos mobilizing over police brutality.
“Just because you guys don’t think you see people that look like us doing any of the work, that’s not true,” said Barrera, who started the group Voices of Strength last year for those whose loved ones have been killed by police. “There are a lot of us doing the work.”
He feared death from police, says family
Lowrie, 50, was three months pregnant with Ernie when his father died, a victim of street violence. Family members said the child was like a reincarnation of his father.
“He was a small little baby, he was so cute. His eyes were gray and he had thick dark hair,” Lowrie said. As he grew up, “he was playful, he was sneaky — he wanted all the attention.”
Often distracted in school, Serrano began to write poetry and liked to freestyle rap — a frequent source of entertainment at family gatherings. He embraced the family’s Mexican American culture, teasing his mom for listening to her rancheras — singers like Vicente Fernández and Juan Gabriel — and blasting his favorite corridos at family barbecues instead.
But in his late teens and 20s, he began to abuse drugs, family said, and increasingly found himself in confrontations with police. There was a compounding effect, they said. Encounters with police traumatized him, which caused him to further abuse substances, which then put him in situations that led to more encounters with police. Lowrie said he served about two years in jail on a charge of resisting arrest and had been released the week before his death. The day before he died, he was arrested and released on charges of being under the influence and resisting arrest, she said.
“[The police] harm the harmed, and that exacerbates the harm, and then [they] get reactive to protests and all these other things that follow that,” Serafin Serrano, the uncle, said.
Ernie Serrano had grown dark in his final years, his family said. He would argue with his uncle over the existential question of whether the world was a fundamentally good place.
“I’m trapped in a dark place/where nothing grows but the anger and pain,” reads one of his poems. “I think I’m lost in my mentality./Adrift, floating in the starless night sky./ I don’t know if I’m waiting for death/or waiting to become alive.”
Near the end of his life, Ernie Serrano developed a deep fear, bordering on paranoia, of law enforcement, his family said.
“The cops are out to kill me. No matter where I go, they are out to kill me,'” he would tell his family again and again.
“You could say he had a premonition of his imminent death at their hands,” his uncle said.
What pains Serafin Serrano the most is that his nephew died before he could prove him wrong about the world.
Instead, he said, Ernie Serrano died “having proven his hypothesis correct: That the world was cruel, and had these cruel and inhumane practices up until his very end.”