PERSPECTIVE: Will MTS Death Bring About Real Change?


Arturo Castañares
Publisher

Months before George Floyd was murdered on the street by a police officer in Minneapolis, 24-year-old Angel Zapata Hernandez died here in San Diego when two transit security guards attempted to detain him.

The case went virtually unnoticed because the police report was immediately sealed and the death was described as the arrest of a man acting erratically who suffered a medical emergency while being arrested.

Then last week, more than a year and a half after the incident, San Diego County Board of Supervisors Chairman Nathan Fletcher, also the Chair of the San Diego Metropolitan Transit System (MTS), announced a $5.5 million settlement with the Hernandez family.

It seemed like a quick resolution for the family and a positive step forward for a public agency, a seemingly win-win outcome.

But, then the video of the incident was finally released and we found out what really happened. 

Two private security guards responding to a call about an abandoned backpack (they didn’t find it) confronted Hernandez as he walked within the boundaries of the downtown trolley station and began to question him.

Although he hadn’t done anything illegal, Hernandez ran away from the security guards and they chased him down, handcuffed him, and laid him face down on the sidewalk.

Then, in nearly the same way Derek Chauvin held down George Floyd, the two security guards held Hernandez handcuffed and face down for over nine minutes, one of them with his knee on Hernandez’s back then his neck.

During the last few minutes of the incident, two SDPD officers arrived on the scene, and one of them told the guards to “keep him on the ground”.

After about six minutes of struggling to breathe, Hernandez’s breathing slowed, then stopped.

When one of the officers asked, “did you kill him?”, the security guard with his knee on Hernandez casually asked, “Angel, you still alive, dude?”  

He didn’t respond.

Hernandez was pronounced dead after paramedics arrived.

The official autopsy ruled the death as a homicide and listed the cause of death as cardiopulmonary arrest, the same conclusion reached in the death of George Floyd.

But in this case, the two security guards walked free, and San Diego District Attorney Summer Stephen’s office announced that no charges will be filed, claiming that no evidence existed that the security guards intended to kill Hernandez. The same was true of Chauvin who was convicted last month of second degree murder and now faced up to 40 years in prison.

One of the complications for the DA may be that the SDPD officer directed the security guard to keep Hernandez down, creating an argument that the trained policeman would have known better than the securty guard if Hernandez was in distress, but the police officer was not the one that held Hernandez, so assigning blame for his death may not be clear in a court of law.

But for the public, and especially our communities of color, another innocent, unarmed person was killed by the direct actions of someone operating under the color of law, whether a security guard or police officer doesn’t really matter.

In this case, two private individuals working as security guards acted to detain Hernandez even though they had no proof or suspicion that he had committed a crime. They told him to stop running and when he didn’t, then detained him, handcuffed him, and killed him, even if inadvertently.

MTS must have realized that it could not defend the actions of its security guards, and that a prolonged public legal battle would only cost it more money and put the Hernandez family through even more emotional pain.

Fletcher and MTS did the right thing in quickly mediating a settlement and agreeing to initiate reforms to MTS’s security polices to prohibit carotid restraints, chokeholds, and knee pressure on the neck, throat or head, and also require that “use of force to be proportional to the seriousness of the subject’s offense, a duty to intervene if witnessing excessive force by another employee; requiring de-escalation tactics when feasible; and requiring a warning prior to the use of force.”

These are all good -even if overdue- changes to policing that should be instituted by all police agencies, but these changes will not bring justice for Hernandez’s death. 

The two security guards were allowed to resign (neither was fired) and they could be on the job somewhere else today without any punishment of any kind.

The message to the public is -again- that an innocent person was killed for no reason except that he fell under the control of law enforcement officials and paid with his life. 

And the public was kept in the dark during the time of peaceful protests after George Floyd was killed. When the public was expressing its frustrations with excessive force by police, even here in San Diego, we were deprived of the truth about how and why Angel Hernandez died.

Accountability can only be enforced through transparency – not eventual transparency after a settlement is reached – but real-time transparency to help ensure that justice is served and no other similar incident happens.

Police too ofter withhold information, seal reports, deny request for documents, and even sometimes flat-out lie about the true facts of the use of excessive force or officer involved shootings. As we saw in the cases of George Floyd and Angel Hernandez, the initial reports described the deaths as medical emergencies during arrests, not a knee to the back that asphyxiated the victims.

Had it not been for videos in both of these cases -and in increasingly more due to officer body worn cameras as well as bystander cell phone videos- we may never have know for ourselves what really happened.

As the prosecutor in the Derek Chauvin case told the jury, “You can believe your eyes.” But only because of the video shot by a nine year-old bystander.

After-the-fact police reforms are a good response to officer-involved deaths, but preventive measures to ban deadly choke holds, prone detainment, and knees on necks should happen now before even one more person is killed.

And complete transparency of reports, autopsies, and especially, police videos, should be mandated immediately. Police should not benefit from hiding information from the public at any time, any where.

Today, only about half of the nearly 16,000 police departments in the US mandate the use of body worn cameras and only a few of those release their videos.

In several cases where police thought the videos exonerated their actions, police videos were released within hours of the incident, including the police shooting death this month of Ma’Khia Bryant in Ohio and an incident here in San Diego in March where SDPD officers were accused of pointing their guns at an 8 year-old boy during a traffic stop. 

To calm the community, SDPD put out the video with a statement:

“The body worn camera footage is being released due to misinformation which is circulating on social media regarding this incident. We hope the release of this video will provide clarity as to what occurred.”

That same attitude should prevail in all cases to help provide clarity.

Police should not get to pick and choose to release videos only when they think the videos help their cases, and withhold them when they fear a community backlash.

It is time – well passed time- for police and public agencies to be fully transparent in their actions, both good and bad. The public has an inherent, constitutional, and legal basis to know what our government and public safety officials are doing, even when it may cause embarrassment, protests, or criminal charges.

Democracy isn’t easy. It isn’t always comfortable. And sometimes difficult issues to resolve take marches in the streets to bring about change. End of slavery. Women’s suffrage. Civil rights. Criminal justice reform.

Some people may be uncomfortable with these changes, but our communities that have been historically affected by injustices have already been uncomfortable for too long. Now is the time for change.

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