Orange County District Attorney Todd Spitzer has released a report declaring that his office will not charge Fullerton Police Corporal Jonathan Ferrell in the May 27, 2020 shooting death of resident Hector Hernandez during a domestic violence call on in the west side of the city. The report is addressed to Fullerton Police Chief Robert Dunn, and dated July 21, but was not released until August 4 by the District Attorney.
Cpl. Ferrell was the first of many Fullerton Police Officers to arrive at the Hernandez home in the 3600 block of West Ave. on May 21, responding to reports of a man having fired a gun inside his residence and threatening family members. After police eventually located Hernandez at the address, Ferrell released his K-9 police dog Rotar to subdue Hernandez in his front yard. Hernandez stood near his front door with his hands up but pulled a knife from his pocket to fend off the dog as it dragged him to the ground. Police body camera video shows that Ferrell quickly shot Hernandez twice at close range, fatally wounding him.
The report cites statements by Cpl. Ferrell, body cam footage, and witness accounts of the incident to justify its conclusions that Ferrell should not face criminal charges because he acted in self-defense. Hernandez, 34, is characterized as having been “extremely” intoxicated and armed with a deadly weapon and endangering children by his actions, which led to Ferrell to experience a “heightened” sense of fear when responding to the call.
The 16-page report by the District Attorney concludes that, based on a review of evidence and “pursuant to legal principles” it is the legal opinion of the DA’s office that “there is insufficient evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt any criminal culpability on the part of Corporal Ferrell that he shot and killed Hernandez on May, 27, 2020.” The report also notes that in order for Ferrell to be “justly and lawfully charged and convicted with a crime in this incident,” the D.A. would need to prove that Ferrell “did not act in reasonable and justifiable self-defense of another when he shot Hernandez.”
Investigators reference body cam footage taken immediately following the shooting of Hernandez that captures Ferrell stating “he” (Hernandez) was “going after me” after telling other officers that Rotar had been stabbed. “This spontaneous statement is consistent with Corporal Ferrell’s stated belief that he was in imminent danger of suffering great bodily injury and/or death before discharging his service weapon,” the report reads.
Ferrell later reiterated his fear of harm to D.A. investigators. In June, 2020, Ferrell told them that he only discovered that Hernandez had a knife in his hand when he was within “one foot” of him, as he removed Rotar’s “bite” from him. Ferrell also reported that he saw Hernandez “swing the open blade in a violent motion” in his direction, and that Hernandez made “stabbing motions” with it. The D.A. supports Ferrell’s claim that he was in fear of bodily harm by noting that there was “nothing preventing Hernandez from stabbing” Ferrell.
Friends and family of Hernandez contend that his killing was a result of unnecessary deadly force by FPD because Hernandez was already complying with police commands, but the D.A. report cites repeated non-compliance with police commands, including that he walked toward the street instead of back towards his residence. The report also contends that Ferrell’s use of Rotar on Hernandez constituted an attempt at non-lethal force prior to the killing.
A dedicated group of Hector Hernandez supporters have held protests in front of FPD headquarters and City Hall and spoken out during City Council meetings to demand that Ferrell be fired from the Fullerton Police Department, and to express their frustration over the length of time taken by the D.A.’s office to complete its report on the killing. Some have claimed that Ferrell shot Hernandez because he stabbed Rotar. The D.A. report agrees that the use of deadly force is not appropriate for the purpose of protecting property, in this case the K-9 Rotar, but concludes that Ferrell’s lethal actions were not taken for that purpose.
The family is legally represented by Garo Mardirossian, who sued Fullerton over the death of Kelly Thomas 10 years ago. Mardirossian contends that FPD has not properly followed California state law that compels police departments to release body worn camera footage of police shootings. FPD issued a narrated video “critical incident community briefing” incorporating video and audio from the shooting in June, 2020, but has not released all footage from all cameras on the scene.
The D.A.’s report is accompanied by its own video, which is different in format, and in some areas, content, than the one produced by FPD.
The D.A. video uses extensive body cam footage from Cpl. Ferrell. Unlike the FPD video, the D.A. video is not narrated. Instead, it begins with audio of calls to FPD and police radio transmissions, with on-screen transcriptions. Extensive video and audio from Cpl. Ferrell’s body worn camera shows the officer retrieving Rotar from his police vehicle, pointing a gun at and questioning a man across from the residence, and assessing the situation with other officers.
The video switches to multiple simultaneous views from 3 body cams worn by officers including Ferrell (who ultimately shot him) who approached Hernandez when he appeared. Police continue to shout commands at Hernandez, who lies, barely moving, on the ground. Video of the shooting, without audio, is then repeated in slow motion, from all three cameras. A large red arrow and the word “knife” appear at times to indicate the knife in the hand of Hernandez, on the ground, as he tries to fend off the dog. A two-camera video resumes at normal speed with audio showing officers handcuffing the unmoving Hernandez, as he bleeds on the ground. They then declare that he has no weapons and allow medics to treat him, telling them that Hernandez has “two chest wounds.”
Bill Brown, Hernandez’s friend and neighbor, has organized numerous protests seeking justice for Hector, and has spoken at many city council meetings.
“I am disgusted,” Brown said upon reading the DA’s report.
Brown said that there are significant discrepancies between the bodycam video of the shooting and the narrative contained in the DA’s report, specifically regarding what actually prompted officer Ferrell to shoot Hernandez.
Rather than shooting Hernandez out of fear for his own safety, Brown says, the video shows officer Ferrell advancing upon and shooting Hernandez after seeing that his K-9 dog Rotar had been hurt.
“Hector had every right to defend himself from a dog that was let go on him when he was obeying the only command screamed at him by everybody—Put your hands up!” Brown said. “You don’t have to have a law degree to figure that stuff out. Read his report, look at the video, and they don’t match. To me it’s deliberately exonerating the officer. And they took 14 months just to fabricate the story. It’s horrible.”
Kelly Chadwick Williams, the aunt of Hector’s son, witnessed the killing, and has since become an advocate for justice for Hector.
“I’m very heartbroken because I feel like the DA has made a wrong decision,” Williams said.
As a witness, Williams says that officer Ferrell was not in harm or danger.
“The police didn’t handle the situation the way they should have,” Williams said. “They didn’t try to de-escalate the situation.”
Both Brown and Williams say that this experience has shaken their faith in law enforcement.
“Now I see that Todd Spitzer has one set of laws for law enforcement and another set of laws for everybody else. That’s what I take away from this. The DA just does not want to prosecute officers,” Brown said.
The Fullerton Police Department declined to comment on the report, citing “the ongoing personnel investigation and pending civil litigation.”
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