Several members of the public addressed City Council on April 20, asking for justice and accountability for the May 27, 2020 police killing of Hector Hernandez.
“This isn’t the kind of policing that we want to see in Fullerton,” Bill Brown, a friend and neighbor of Hernandez, said. Brown held up still images from the body-worn camera video of the incident. He has organized numerous protests over the past year.
On the night of the incident, police responded to two 911 calls reporting that Hernandez had fired a gun in his house, was armed with a knife, and had assaulted members of his household after he returned intoxicated to his home in west Fullerton.
Confronted by police in front of his house, Hernandez complied with orders to raise his hands. A police dog was released, attacked Hernandez, and took him to the ground. Hernandez used what appeared to be a knife to stab the dog, defensively, according to witnesses. Immediately, the dog’s handler, officer Jonathan Ferrell, fatally shot Hernandez.
It is unclear whether the dog was released intentionally. Following the incident, the dog (Rotar) was retired from service.
“This was a clear murder. Hector was on the ground. He had every right to defend himself from a dog that was sent to attack him while he was doing what he was told with his hands in the air,” Brown said. “We want justice. We want this officer not to be on our streets.”
Following the incident, FPD released a “Critical Incident Video” showing selected clips from the incident narrated by Police Chief Bob Dunn. Brown and others have asked for police to release all of the body-worn camera footage, not just selections chosen by the department.
The District Attorney’s office is investigating the case and the family of Hernandez has filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the city of Fullerton over the incident.
The police and City Council have commented little on the incident, citing the ongoing investigation by the DA, an internal review, privacy laws, and litigation brought by the family of Hernandez.
“As per our Policy and Protocol, this Officer-Involved Shooting is pending an independent investigation by the Orange County District Attorney’s Office,” Corporal Billy Phu, Public Information Officer for the Fullerton Police Department, told The Observer. “The Officer’s actions, as they relate to policy, are also being reviewed by our Internal Affairs Unit. We withhold judgement and do not draw any conclusions until all facts are known and the investigations are complete.”
Ameena Qazi, a Fullerton resident, said that accountability has been lacking because the police have not released all the video footage, the witness statements, nor the autopsy report.
“The more I learn about what happened, the more appalled I am at the lack of accountability, the lack of response, and the lack of information that we have been getting as a community, despite multiple demands for information,” Qazi said.
When asked how he responds to claims that the department is not being transparent about the incident, Cpl. Phu said, “Continuing with our transparency protocol with this incident, we released relevant Body-worn Camera footage, dispatch recordings, and photos. We also issued a Press Release as well as maintained correspondence with media outlets…to answer any questions we can without compromising the integrity of the investigation and infringing upon any privacy laws. Due to ongoing civil litigation, we cannot comment any further other than what is included in the Community Critical Incident Debrief.”
Fullerton police maintain that they have released all relevant body camera video and audio from the scene. Activists and the family’s lawyer argue that State law requires FPD to release all unedited video and audio from the body cameras of all officers on the scene, not just those found in the video released by FPD. SB1421.
“The Right to Know Act,” took effect on January 1, 2019. This law requires the release of police records—including audio and video—related to incidents where an officer has fired a gun, committed a sexual assault, or has engaged in dishonest investigation.
Anaheim resident Vern Nelson said, “Nothing can bring Hector Hernandez back to life, back to his family. All we’re asking for is a little justice for Hector, a little justice and reform to make it less likely that another Fullerton resident will be killed unnecessarily by the people who are paid and sworn to protect and serve them.”
Nelson criticized the department’s lack of transparency over the killing, pointing out that Fullerton’s current Chief Bob Dunn was formerly the Public Information Officer during a number of high profile police killings in Anaheim. “He could always spin a yarn about how dangerous and evil the victim was and how heroic it was of the cop to kill them,” Nelson said. “That’s really what you expect from a police spokesman, or any corporate spokesman—not the truth, but whatever spin looks good in the moment. But I think Fullerton should demand better from a chief.”
Nelson also pointed out that the majority of councilmembers had received campaign contributions from the local police union. “But that shouldn’t mean you’re afraid to vote for accountability,” he said.
Erica Cervantes, a law student and Fullerton resident, noted that Hernandez was killed just two days after the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, and that on the day she was speaking (April 20), a jury had just handed down a “guilty” verdict of Derek Chauvin, the police officer who murdered Floyd.
“George Floyd. Daunte Wright. Adam Toldeo. These are only a few of the countless black and brown victims who have been murdered at the hands of the police,” Cervantes said. “The city of Fullerton and the Fullerton Police Department might not think they have similar issues, but with the murder of Hector Hernandez, that is certainly not the case, and we cannot turn a blind eye to it.”
Fullerton resident and public school teacher Mike Rodriguez said, “Next month will be the one-year anniversary of Hector’s murder at the hands of officer Jonathan Ferrell of the Fullerton Police Department. Hector should still be here today, and Ferrell should be off the streets. Hector’s sons will never feel his embrace again, and that breaks my heart being a father myself. Executions at the hands of the police have been happening all over the country for too long, and Fullerton is no exception.”
Forty-seven percent of the City’s general fund goes to the police department and the City should “redirect funds away from Fullerton Police Department to other programs that take proactive steps to prevent crime,” according to Rodriguez.
He demanded that the City set up an independent task force made up of residents to research and analyze the police budget “to find out how we can divert police funds to places that we need it most—housing, mental health, youth programming, unarmed emergency response teams that can de-escalate situations, not like they escalated them the night that Hector was murdered. I have faith that we can all do this together, so let’s work on it,” Rodriguez said.
Anaheim resident Donna Acevedo Nelson, whose son Joel Acevedo was killed by Anaheim police in 2012 appeared with her grandson, Joel’s son.
“Please fire officer Ferrell for the murder of Hector Hernandez,” Acevedo said.
Jennifer Rojas, senior policy advocate and organizer with American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Southern California, said, “The ACLU of Southern California stands in solidarity with Hector Hernandez’s family and community in calling for justice and accountability.”
Rojas pointed out that, under California State Assembly Bill 392, which took effect in January 2020, police can only use deadly force when necessary and in defense of human life.
“According to the records released by the City, the FPD’s killing of Hector Hernandez does not meet this legal standard,” Rojas said. “Hector was lying down, was being attacked by a police dog at the time he was shot and killed by the officer. From the video it is incredibly hard to see any reason why the officer rushed towards him rather than remaining at a safe distance, or why he could not have just stepped back. It’s incredibly hard to see why this violent killing was necessary in defense of human life.”
Rojas also criticized the fact that the Fullerton Police Department contracts with the for-profit company Lexipol, which sells policing policy to police departments across California and opposed changing the use of force standard in California.
After public comments, Mayor Bruce Whitaker did not comment directly on the Hernandez case, but said, “Often because of legal issues—laws in the state of California and litigation, we’re left in a position of not really being able to respond or have the normal dialogue that you might have…It doesn’t mean that we don’t feel very strongly about those losses and the hurt that people are experiencing. I do believe that we all, as human beings, want to solve these problems.”
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