Over the recent past both police departments nationally as well as the Denver police department have been increasingly in the public eye for what many would characterize as a disproportionate use of force. Nationally, incidents like the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson and the strangulation of Eric Garner in New York, as well as local incidents like this week’s fatal shooting of teenager Jessica Hernandez in Denver, have only increased this scrutiny. Is this increased attention unfair and unwarranted, or are police forces stepping beyond their historical mandate to protect and serve?
Before proceeding, it is important to recognize that police officers have an extremely difficult job. Gone are the Norman Rockwell days when the police officer’s day consisted of helping old ladies cross the street and talking to little Billy’s parents after catching him playing hooky. Today’s law enforcement officers are assigned the unenviable task of dealing with an every growing and diverse populace with an increasingly deeply seated distrust of the police. It is in this context that we examine the case of Jessica Hernandez.
By all accounts Jessica Hernandez was a goofy and fun-loving teenager. Her life was tragically cut short in the early morning hours of January 26th. While the fatal shooting is under active investigation by multiple agencies, including the Denver District Attorney’s office, the Denver Police Department, and the Office of the Independent Monitor, details are beginning to emerge. We know that two officers opened fire on the vehicle, which had been reported stolen, containing 4 teenage girls and one teenage boy. All of the teens were unarmed. Jessica was the driver of the vehicle, and was killed, while the other passengers were uninjured.
The officers’ state that they fired on the vehicle in self defense, as the vehicle was being driven toward them. One officer did suffer a fractured leg, presumably after being struck by the vehicle, although exact details of how he obtained this injury have not been confirmed. A key unanswered question in this case is the timeline. Did the officers shoot Jessica before being struck by the vehicle as at least one of the passengers alleges? Did the officers open fire only after being placed in mortal harm by the car?
Police department policies nationally, as well as the Denver Police Department’s Use of Force policy, specifically discourage firing at a moving car. Essentially, even if a car is trying to run down an officer or another, the officer’s directive is to get out of the way without shooting. Only if the car poses an imminent danger of death, and the officer has no ability to flee, is firing at a moving vehicle authorized. It takes a very specific circumstance to warrant the lethal response found in this case. Denver Police officers have shot at moving vehicles 4 times in the past 7 months, killing 2 people and injuring 3. Were any of these shooting avoidable?
This is the questions that Jessica Hernandez’s family is entitled to, the question that the families of the other victims are entitled to, and the question that we should all be asking. While it is possible that each of these shootings was justified, the onus is and should be on the police to show the public that this is and was the case in each incident. Police officers do have a very hard job, but it is still their job. It is the job that each police officer signs on for with his or her eyes wide open, and there should be no passes. We as a people deserve to know that each and every one of those brave men and women in blue are serving and protecting us, and if they are not, justice should be served.
While the police officers involved in this incident were cleared of any criminal wrongdoing, Jessica’s death in 2015 has led to changes in Denver Police Policies concerning moving vehicles. Now, in 2017, the policy states the police cannot shoot at vehicles unless they are returning fire.
Although there was no criminal action taken against the officers, the city council has approved a payout of one million dollars to Jessica’s family. The decision was made to stave off a long ordeal in the court. In addition to the monetary compensation, the council approved several other concessions. The council will permit the Hernandez family to select a representative for the committee that will review and rewrite the use of force policy for the city. They will also stop releasing the criminal histories of those shot by police. Often these histories portray victims in a bad light and paint a one-sided picture of the incident in question. Lastly, the police will host a forum that focuses on justice in the Latino and LGB communities.
The money for this settlement comes from the City of Denver funds and not from funds specific to the officers involved. Pay outs such as these are one area targeted by those who want police reform and stricter guidelines. They believe if police pay and retirement funds were targeted, police officers would be more cautious about their use of force.
The family is grateful for the opportunity to work with police, but no amount of money will ever replace a beloved family member. Hopefully this incident will lead to better policies and greater safety for the community and for the police force.
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