Independent Monitor launches in-depth evaluation of officers shooting at moving vehicles

Protesters demand answers in Hernandez shooting

DENVER - The Office of the Independent Monitor for the City and County of Denver is launching an investigation into a series of officer involved shootings involving moving vehicles.

That announcement comes on the heels of a fatal shooting of a teenager who police say was behind the wheel of a stolen car that hit an officer in Park Hill.

Family members and community activists rallied in front of the Webb Municipal Office Building Tuesday morning demanding justice for the teenage girl who was shot and killed by Denver police.

Investigators say Jessica "Jessie" Hernandez, 17, of Thornton, drove a stolen car toward police in an alley near 25th Avenue and Newport Street Monday morning, striking one officer in the leg.  Investigators say two officers then fired at the car, killing Hernandez.

The coroner said Hernandez died of multiple gunshot wounds.

UPDATE: Wednesday, police identified the officers involved as 16-year-veteran Daniel Greene and 9-year-veteran Gabriel Jordan. Both are on administrative leave while the incident is investigated.

Bobbie Diaz, the mother of one of the passengers in the car, told 7NEWS by phone that police began firing at the car before the officer was struck.

Diaz said she believes Jessie was trying to protect the other kids by getting out of the line of fire.

Jessie's cousin, Jose Castaneda, and several members of the Greater Metro Denver Ministerial Alliance rallied in front of the Webb Municipal Office Building Tuesday morning to protest the fatal shooting.

They demanded access to any police video of the shooting.

“Where’s the video of where he dragged my cousin out and flipped her over and secured her after she was dead,” said an emotional Castaneda. “I want to see that video.  I want to see the reason they shot my cousin.”

Police say that video doesn’t exist because officers in District Two aren’t equipped with cameras.

“There was a pilot program to outfit officers in District Six with cameras,” said department spokesman Sony Jackson, “the other districts don’t have them.”

Rev. Patrick Demmer was among the protesters.  He said police overreacted.

“We’re sick and tired of these kinds of things happening,” Demmer said. “There seems to be no true objective investigation.”

Former prosecutor, now criminal defense attorney Karen Steinhauser told 7NEWS that it’s too early to know whether police overreacted or were justified in shooting the teenager.

“There are a lot of questions that have to be asked,” Steinhauser said, “and a lot people who have to be talked to.  We need to make sure not to make a snap decision. It’s too early.”

Steinhauser, who is also an Adjunct Professor at the Sturm College of Law at the University of Denver, said, “One of the issues has to be -- at the time that these shots were fired -- what was it about this situation that made the officers believe their lives were in danger?”

“Would they have been seriously injured had they not fired a shot,” she asked. “Was there a lesser use of force that they could have used that would have prevented a child from dying?  Would it have been enough to shoot out the tires?  Would it have been enough to do something else to prevent the care from running into an officer or hurting other individuals?”

She said, “It’s easy to ‘Monday morning quarterback’ cases like this,” but added, “I understand, from having to work with officers, their lives are on the line.  They have to make these types of split second decisions, but at some point too, you have to question ‘was that a decision that could have and should have gone a different way?’”  

When asked about the stolen car, Steinhauser said, “Stealing cars was, and is, a kid crime and kids do it.  I think one of the things people have to keep in mind however, is a car can be considered a deadly weapon, depending on how it’s used.”

"I think the facts will show that hopefully the officers' reactions were correct," said Denver Police Chief Robert White. "If they weren't, we'll certainly address that."

The protesters question whether police can be fair when they’re investigating their own officers.

Steinhauser said, “I believe Denver has great investigators, but when you investigate your own, it doesn’t matter how great the investigators are, you’re always going to deal with the perception that it’s not a fair investigation.”

The former prosecutor said one way to deal with the perception is to bring in outside investigators to deal with officer-involved shootings.

Police Department spokesman Sonny Jackson told 7NEWS that the previous mayor set up the Independent Monitor to deal with the perception that investigators weren’t being fair.

“The Office of the Independent Monitor is separate from the Police Department and from the DA’s office,” Jackson said.

The Independent Monitor for Denver Police released a statement Tuesday evening on the incident:

"Over the last seven months, there have been four officer-involved shootings involving Denver police officers shooting at moving vehicles.  Shootings involving moving vehicles pose unique potential safety risks to both officers and the community.  Today, the Office of the Independent Monitor is launching an in-depth evaluation of this issue.  This evaluation will assess the current state of the DPD's policies, practices, and training on shooting at moving vehicles in comparison to national standards and best practices from other police departments in the United States.  I look forward to collaborating with the DPD and the community, and reporting back on this effort."

-- Nicholas E. Mitchell, Independent Monitor

A protest and vigil was held for Hernandez Monday night. Friends described Hernandez as funny and outgoing. Some held up signs protesting police brutality.

"It's crazy to believe that someone you knew is gone and how it happened, it's uncalled for," said friend Destiny Moya.

Both officers are on administrative leave while the incident is investigated by the Denver District Attorney's Office, which is standard procedure.

A Denver Police spokesman said the injured officer is expected to be OK, and may be released from the hospital soon.

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