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Saturday, January 31, 2015

The Jessica Hernandez Case: Police Kill 17-Year-Old Girl in Stolen Car

     In Denver, Colorado at six-thirty in the morning of Monday January 26, 2015, two police officers responded to a call about a suspicious vehicle. The officers knew that the parked car, occupied by five people, had been reported stolen. According to the police version of the story, as the officers approached the vehicle, it lurched toward them. Both officers opened fire, hitting and killing the driver who turned out to be 17-year-old Jessica Hernandez. The car struck one of the officers in the leg.

     Bobbie Diaz, the mother of a 16-year-old girl who was in the stolen car at the time of the shooting was in bed when she heard four gunshots followed by a man yelling, "Freeze! Get out of the car! Get down!"

     When Diaz went outside to investigate, she saw police officers pulling young people from the car. They yanked Jessica Hernandez out from behind the steering wheel and handcuffed the unresponsive girl. One of the teens in the group screamed, "She's dead! She's dead!"

     Another witness to the police shooting, neighborhood resident Arellia Hammock, told a reporter she heard three gunshots that morning. In referring to the teenagers involved, she said, "They shouldn't have stolen a car. But the cops are too fast on the gun. You've got stun guns. You've got rubber bullets. Why do they have to shoot all the time?"

     One of the occupants of the stolen car offered a version of the incident different in a very important way from the official police account. According to this witness, the vehicle didn't move toward the officers until after they killed the driver.

     The Denver chief of police, pursuant to departmental policy in such matters, placed both officers on administrative leave pending the outcome of the investigation into Hernandez's death. The inquiry would be conducted by three separate agencies: the Denver Police Department, the district attorney's office, and a civilian oversight organization called the Office of Independent Monitor.

     At a vigil held that night for Jessica Hernandez, residents of the neighborhood critical of the police  held signs protesting the shooting. One of the signs read: "Your Badge Is Not a License to Kill."

     Two days after the fatal shooting, 200 angry protestors gathered outside Denver's District 2 police station. An official with the independent civilian oversight organization reported to the media that in the past seven months Denver police officers had fired four times at vehicles they perceived as threats.

     According to the Denver Police Department's use of deadly force guidelines, officers in cases like this are urged to step out of the way of approaching vehicles rather than to open fire. Moreover, if the driver of the vehicle is hit, the car or truck could become an unguided missile.

     Because Denver police cars are not equipped with dashboard cameras, investigators of the shooting will have to rely on witness accounts of the incident. It would be helpful to detectives if the incident had been caught on a neighborhood surveillance camera.

     Even if the facts of this shooting turn out in a light most favorable to the police, the killing of a teenage girl will leave a bad taste in this community. In all probability it will also lead to a wrongful death lawsuit. 

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