More than a dozen demonstrators gathered in front of the Fullerton Police Department on the afternoon of Saturday, November 14, to protest the killing of Fullerton resident Hector Hernandez in May of this year. Friends and family contend that Hernandez’s May 27 death at the hands of an officer of the force was unnecessary and constituted an unacceptable use of deadly force. Police responded to a call reporting that Hernandez had fired a gun in his house following an altercation between himself and members of his household after he returned intoxicated to his home in west Fullerton after an evening out with his girlfriend. Confronted by police in front of his house, Hernandez complied with orders to raise his empty hands, but drew a work knife from his pocket and stabbed a police dog loosed upon him by an FPD officer, who the immediately shot Hernandez multiple times. Hernandez died at the scene. Rotar, the police dog, was treated for a non-life threatening wound, and ceremonially retired from service during a Fullerton City Council meeting in the weeks following the shooting.
The Fullerton Police Department released a Critical Incident Briefing video in late July, following a standard format instituted by the department’s Chief Robert Dunn, wherein selected officer body cam footage is compiled to form a narrative interspersed with explanatory comments by Chief Dunn and other high ranking police command officers. Garo Mardirossian, representing the family of the deceased Hernandez, is demanding all body cam video from all officers present at the scene, not just the footage from the Critical Incident Briefing and the additional video already released by the department. California state law requires that body cam footage from officer involved shootings be made public no less than 45 days following incidents.
Garo Mardirossian, who has represented clients in several high profile cases civil suits against Southland police departments, including Ron Thomas on behalf of his son Kelly who was killed by Fullerton police officers in 2011, expressed frustration over the length of time the department is taking to complete its investigation of the shooting. Mardirossian characterized FPD’s response to his requests as “delaying, refusing, and obfuscating.” He has filed a court motion to force the department to turn over all video footage, and another that would secure the release of the autopsy performed months ago by the county coroner so the family can finally learn exactly how Hernandez died.
Bill Brown, who organized the protest, claims the FPD didn’t interview him or any of the other neighbors who witnessed the shooting at the scene, although he was later interviewed by an investigator from the office of the OC District Attorney, who is also investigating the case. Brown says the protest was organized partly in response to learning that the officer who shot Hernandez has resumed his duties patrolling Fullerton’s streets. He believes the officer displayed “tunnel vision” in his decision to shoot Hernandez, citing cases in other cities where suspects were successfully apprehended without severe violence after they injured police dogs sent to incapacitate them.
Brown, who says he is not anti-police and has friends and family in law enforcement, believes the officer should not only be fired but face 2nd degree murder charges for shooting Hernandez. Brown points out that officers never deployed non-lethal weapons, like tasers or bean bag shotgun rounds against Hernandez because they didn’t consider him to be a threat. He says he “used to be the kind of person who believed with the police said” before comparing his own experience witnessing the shooting with what police reported to the media.
Attorney Mardirossian says he doesn’t disagree with the idea of charging the officer with 2nd degree murder. He called the deployment of Rotar the police dog a “horrible, horrible decision,” contending that the dog didn’t initially perceive a threatening situation with a suspect, and instead ran in the direction of his familiar police vehicle. In the Critical Incident Briefing Rotar does indeed run in a different direction than toward Hernandez after having been released by his handling officer, who is heard to call the dog back several times before they both run toward the front of the house. “Rotar was smarter than his handler,” says Mardirossian, who questions what the police have even been investigating for so many months. “What are they investigating? To see if charges will be brought against officers?” He contends that if they were, they wouldn’t have released Rotar to the officer’s care shortly after retiring the dog following the shooting.
As passing motorists honked their car horns in apparent solidarity with the protesters, Bill Brown described his neighbor Hector Hernandez as a man well loved by his community, saying that he regularly fed people in need. A fundraiser car wash held to help pay for his funeral raised nearly $ 14,000.00, in part, says Brown, because Hernandez was such a well respected figure in his neighborhood.
The scene Saturday recalled the weekly protests held in front of Fullerton police headquarters during the summer of 2011 over the killing of Kelly Thomas, the homeless schizophrenic man severely beaten by officers. That case garnered international attention and resulted in the firing of three officers, none of whom were ultimately convicted of any charges. Mardirossian estimates that the family’s civil suit will not be heard for a least a year, possibly two.