Nearly two years after 17-year-old Jessica Hernandez was shot and killed by Denver police officers, the department has concluded the last stages of their investigation. Chief Robert White said the officers involved acted in accordance with department procedures at the time and they will not face any disciplinary action.
“The Denver Police Department places great value on the sanctity of life and mourns with the community when a life is lost tragically,” White said in a press release announcing his decision. “When officers must use deadly force, a full review of the incident takes place. After reviewing all of the facts and circumstances of the Jessica Hernandez case, it has been determined that the officers’ actions do not warrant disciplinary action. Nonetheless, this incident is a tragedy for all involved. Ms. Hernandez had her whole life in front of her and we mourn her loss with the family.”
The shooting was found to be justified by former District Attorney Mitch Morrissey back in June 2015. The police department changed its policies on shooting into moving vehicles after the killing, along with other high-profile shootings by Denver police.
Hernandez was behind the wheel of a stolen car early on the morning of Jan. 26, 2015, with four other teenagers. She was unarmed. A neighbor had called police to report a suspicious vehicle in the alley. Officers approached and told the teenagers to get out of the car. The witnesses in the car said they had been smoking marijuana and drinking, and the windows were fogged up. One of the teenagers later told investigators they had urged Hernandez to escape through a gap between a patrol car and a fence, according to the district attorney’s investigation.
But officers told investigators they believed Hernandez was accelerating toward Officer Gabriel Jordan and that his life was in danger. Jordan and Officer Daniel Greene both fired at the car. Eight bullets struck the car, and three of them hit Hernandez.
Jordan was not actually hit by the car. He pushed off the driver’s side of the car with one hand and fired into it with the other.
The Denver Police Department later changed its policy to prohibit firing into moving vehicles if the only threat comes from the vehicle itself. That’s in line with best practices for use-of-force policies nationally.
Instead, officers are supposed to do what they can to get out of the way. Why? Because it’s hard to stop a car with a handgun, and the chances of hitting someone you didn’t intend to hit or causing the car to do something even more dangerous are high.
However, the department said the officers did not violate the policy in place at the time.
Earlier this month, the department’s conduct review office finished their investigation. That office concluded that the force used was “appropriate and necessary because it was reasonable for the officers to believe that the vehicle Ms. Hernandez was driving posed an immediate threat to Officer Jordan’s life, and that, as a result, there was no alternative course of action that could reasonably be taken to prevent death or serious bodily injury to Officer Jordan.”
The Hernandez family issued a statement through their attorneys in response to the decision. They said they had recently had a “productive face-to-face meeting” with Mayor Michael Hancock, but they would continue to press for changes to how Denver police officers use force.
“The Hernandez family will achieve justice for Jessie and continue to advocate for meaningful police reform,” they said. “DPD’s changed policies on vehicle stops and shooting into moving vehicles will hopefully prevent future tragedies like the killing of Jessie and other members of the Denver community. The Hernandez family will continue to work with the community and Denver to try to bring about positive change and ensure that Jessie’s death was not in vain.
“The Hernandez family holds out hope that no other family or community will have to experience their pain. They appreciate the compassion and support that the Denver community has shown as they still try to come to grips with this immense loss. Not a day goes by that they don’t think about and miss their beloved Jessie.”
The Denver Police Department is in the process of updating its use-of-force policy, and the first of three public meetings on those policies is scheduled for Tuesday. Community activists have pressed for more community involvement and oversight.
One of the questions has been how the department will handle the exceptions that the use-of-force policy allows for shooting into moving vehicles.
The policy includes this language: “It is understood that the policy in regards to discharging a firearm at a moving vehicle, like all written policies, may not cover every situation. Any deviations shall be examined rigorously on a case-by-case basis.” Independent Monitor Nicholas Mitchell urged caution in his semi-annual report from 2015 “to avoid allowing the exception to swallow the rule.” (With respect to the Hernandez case, Mitchell found that Jordan followed department policies, but the evidence about Greene’s actions was inconclusive.)
On the one hand, there are due process reasons to judge officers by the policies in place at the time. On the other hand, the language used by the conduct review office, in a report written 18 months after the policy changed, stressed the danger to Jordan represented by the moving vehicle, even though an officer in a similar situation today presumably would be discouraged from shooting.
“There doesn’t seem to be a response from the police department about how they need to do things differently to avoid the needless loss of life,” said Lisa Calderón of the Colorado Latino Forum. “To add insult to injury, there is the fact that they have shut us out of their use-of-force policy.”
“This is another indication that Latino lives in Denver are worth less value when it comes to uses of force,” she said. “The fact that over the past five years most of the people who have been shot by DPD have been people of color and 60 percent of them have been Latinos should be a point of outrage for our community.”
Calderón said the change in policy is an indication the department knows its past actions weren’t right.
“They are willing to be forward-looking for future victims, but they are not willing to be retrospective for Jessica Hernandez and the loss her family suffered,” she said.
Mitchell said Hernandez’s death highlighted problems with the previous policy, that it was vague and not consistent with national standards.
“I cannot say that DPD’s conclusions, released today, are inconsistent with that policy,” he said in a statement. “On the day after Jessica’s death, the OIM launched a review of DPD policy and training on shooting into moving vehicles,and the DPD ultimately changed its policy.”
Later this week, Mitchell plans to release his preliminary analysis of the draft policy “with the goal of ensuring safety and accountability in the future.”
The Denver Post asked a number of experts to look at the draft policy, and while many praised its focus on de-escalation, they also said some of the language was too vague and needs to be more specific to ensure accountability.
In an interview, attorney Qusair Mohamedbhai said there is still the possibility the family could take legal action against the city if ongoing discussions are not successful. However, the policy changes that have already been adopted are a good first step, and the family also appreciated Hancock calling them this morning to tell them about the upcoming announcement.
“The way Denver has handled themselves in this particular case has been remarkable,” said Mohamedbhai, who has represented many people who have been affected by police violence. “… I think there is a real sincere determination to try to do this differently and try to get this right, and that is appreciated by the Hernandez family.”
The specific question of whether the officers should be disciplined was not the family’s “highest priority,” Mohamedbhai said. Rather, they want the department’s use-of-force policy strengthened and a blanket prohibition on shooting at moving vehicles.
“This family is a cerebral family. They don’t look for revenge,” he said. “They want peace in our community. They really want to make sure this doesn’t happen to anyone else.”
Friends and family of Jessica Hernandez will gather this Thursday at 6 p.m. to mark the second anniversary of her death. Neighbors are “coming together to make food to share” with the community. The ceremony will be in the alley near the intersection of Newport Street and East 25th Avenue.