Denver will pay $1 million to Jessica Hernandez’s family for 2015 fatal police shooting

By | and | | The Denver Post

Rather than fight a long, expensive and painful court battle, the city of Denver and the family of a 17-year-old girl killed by police chose a different path.

Instead, city officials and the parents of Jessica Hernandez, the girl shot to death in an alley in January 2015, sat down to reach an agreement they hope will resolve the tension surrounding a controversial police shooting that prompted protests and forced the department to change its policy on shooting at moving cars.

City officials on Wednesday announced a settlement that includes a $1 million payout and an agreement that police will no longer voluntarily release criminal histories of those they killed. The City Council will be asked on Monday to approve the $999,999 payment of taxpayer dollars.

“The death of Jessica Hernandez was a tragedy,” City Attorney Kristin Bronson said. “But the collective resolution of this civil matter marks the beginning of our work to heal as a community.”

The killing of a young Latina, LGBTQ girl made national news during a time when police killings of unarmed minorities were causing riots in other cities such as Ferguson, Mo. In Denver, it led to marches and vandalism of a memorial for fallen police officers.

After Wednesday’s announcement, Jessica’s parents, Laura Rosales and Jose Hernandez, reluctantly faced a phalanx of reporters to speak about their daughter.

“I don’t want another family to go through what we’re going through because it’s a pain so strong that no one can imagine it,” a tearful Rosales said in Spanish. “I know that we want peace, and I know that we don’t have it — because it’s not the same since she’s not been at home.”

DENVER, CO - April 12: Laura ...

Laura Sonia Rosales, mother of Jessica Hernandez, a 17-year-old shot and killed by police in July 2015 makes a statement after a press conference announcing a settlement with the city that also includes concessions designed to improve the relationship between the Denver Police Department and the city’s Latino and gay youth at Parr Widener Room, Denver City County Building downtown April 12, 2017.

The decision to settle did not have anything to do with the officers’ conduct, Bronson said. The officers were exonerated of wrongdoing by the district attorney and Police Chief Robert White.

“We don’t really want to litigate the case in the press — that’s not really our goal,” Bronson told The Denver Post in an interview. “Even with an exoneration, you’re still going to get a lawsuit, and that lawsuit is going to take years. And it is going to be very hurtful and divisive and costly. It is not uncommon for cases like this, should they go to trial, to incur attorneys’ fees in excess of this settlement.”

The Hernandez family, represented by the Rathod Mohamedbhai law firm, never filed a lawsuit. But attorneys had filed notice that they were prepared to seek a legal claim, prompting the city to meet with them.

Negotiations picked up steam about five months ago, shortly after Bronson became city attorney. Mayor Michael Hancock and other city leaders met with the Hernandez family in November in what was described by both sides as an emotional exchange.

On Wednesday, Qusair Mohamedbhai, the family attorney, said the Hernandezes never supported violence in their daughter’s name, even calling various protest groups to denounce vandalism at the Denver police memorial.

“Above all, the family was motivated by a positive, peaceful resolution to the death of their beloved daughter,” Mohamedbhai said.

One element in the proposed settlement would require police to write a new policy that forbids the department from proactively releasing criminal background information on the people officers shoot. The department will continue to be covered by the state’s open records law, which requires it to release the information when asked.

Denver Police Chief Robert White, speaking during a press conference to announce that a settlement has been reached with Jose Hernandez and Laura Sonia Rosales, parents of Jessica Hernandez, a 17-year-old shot and killed by police in July 2015 that also includes concessions designed to improve the relationship between the Denver Police Department and the city's Latino and gay youth at Parr Widener Room, Denver City County Building downtown. April 12, 2017, Denver, Colorado.

In the Hernandez case, police portrayed Jessica as a troubled teen who drove a stolen car toward officers. The family has said the department unfairly tarnished the image of a girl who was dearly loved by family and still finding her path in life. Family members of others killed by police have made similar complaints about portrayals of their loved ones.

Jessica made good grades, took care of her four younger sisters and brothers and was exploring a military career after high school graduation, Mohamedbhai said.

“Jessica was a daughter of our community,” he said. “She had an incredible spirit of kindness and generosity.”

The agreement also requires police to host a community meetingfocused on justice in the Latino and LGBTQ communities. And the Hernandez family will select a representative to serve on a new committee that is helping rewrite the department’s use-of-force policy, the settlement agreement said.

If the Hernandez family decides to start a nonprofit in Jessica’s name, the city will provide training through its Office of Economic Development, the agreement said.

Finally, police will continue to ensure that its officers will be trained on its policy that prohibits them from shooting into moving cars except in extreme circumstances.

Hernandez was shot three times by two police officers on the morning of Jan. 26, 2015, in the 2500 block of an alley between Niagara and Newport streets in northeast Denver. Four other teens were inside the car, and bullets narrowly missed them. None of the teens had weapons.

The teens had fallen asleep in the car after staying out all night, and police, who had been called to check on the car by neighbors, discovered the car had been reported stolen.

When the two officers, Gabriel Jordan and Daniel Green, ordered the boys and girls out of the car, Jessica began maneuvering it in an attempt to escape. The officers said the car accelerated toward them and they feared they would be hit when they opened fire into it.

In all, the officers fired eight shots, including four that went through the driver’s side windows.

Former District Attorney Mitch Morrissey determined the officers’ actions were legally justified and declined to file charges. In January, the police department determined that officers did not violate any policiesand they would not be disciplined.

The settlement was welcomed by community groups who have criticized police.

The Colorado Latino Forum, a frequent law enforcement critic, issued a statement praising the settlement.

“We hope this settlement marks a new day for city leaders to display a willingness to promote community healing by listening with a renewed sense of concern and empathy for victims’ families,” the statement said.

City Councilman Paul Lopez said that Jessica, no matter the circumstances, did not deserve to die. He did not want her family to endure a fight in the courts.

“In honor of her family’s wishes for peace and policy change, it is imperative that we continue to fix antiquated use-of-force policies as a community,” Lopez wrote in an email. “Prohibitions on shooting into moving vehicles was a great start, but there is still a lot more work to be done. Jessica’s prayer card and picture has, and will continue to hang, on my wall as a reminder of these wishes.”

Denver Post staff reporter David Migoya contributed to this story.

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