Community waits for answers in year-old Fullerton police shooting

Bill Brown won’t touch his torque wrench.

It sits in a box on a shelf in his garage — a protected memory.

It was the last tool Brown ever loaned to Hector Hernandez. Seared into the handle are the dusty fingerprints of his old friend.

It’s been a year since Hernandez was shot to death in his front yard by a Fullerton police officer, yet his friends, family and neighbors still wait for the results of an investigation into the incident.

They say the Orange County district attorney’s probe of the shooting has gone on far too long. They continue to push for the officer who shot Hernandez to be held accountable.

The Justice for Hector Hernandez coalition, which now includes about 20 organizations, has spent the last year advocating for their cause with protests and by attending City Council meetings to put pressure on officials.

But Dist. Atty. Todd Spitzer’s office has not concluded the investigation.

“This incident is still under review, and we have no further comment at this time,” D.A. spokeswoman Kimberly Edds wrote in an email.

Peter Hardin, who is running against Spitzer for D.A., posted several Tweets last week criticizing Spitzer and his role in the drawn-out investigation.

“This week O.C. mourns the loss of Hector Hernandez, whose life was lost one year ago in a concerning use-of-force case that was captured on video,” Hardin wrote. “Mr. Hernandez’s family & our community continue to wait for answers. District Attorney Todd Spitzer has met them with silence.”

There has also been an Internal Affairs investigation into the incident. Fullerton Police Cpl. Billy Phu said last week that that investigation is ongoing, too.

“As per our policy and protocol, this officer-involved shooting is pending an independent investigation by the Orange County district attorney’s office,” Phu wrote in an email.

Phu pointed out that the Fullerton Police Department created a webpage where the public can see documents related to police shootings and other use-of-force incidents. He said documents on Hernandez’s shooting will be available once the investigations are completed.

Meanwhile, the officer who shot Hernandez, Jonathan Ferrell, is still working and is assigned to patrol.

About 60 people gathered in front of Hernandez’s home last week to hold a vigil marking the one-year anniversary of his death. They took turns speaking about Hernandez as people stood in the yard and spilled out into the street.

Prayer candles flickered next to a photo of Hernandez on the spot where he was fatally shot.

“It happened right here, right where we stand, in the front yard, right here where these candles are lit,” said Santi Santiago, who was friends with Hernandez.

“He is still here with me,” Santiago said. “He’s never going to leave. He’s always going to be in my heart.”

Neighbors and family members attend a memorial

Neighbors and family members attend a memorial for Hector Hernandez on the one-year anniversary of his death in Fullerton.

(Raul Roa / Times Community News)

In the steel-gray dusk, neighbors lit their prayer candles and placed them at the memorial. A man poured out some of his beer in Hernandez’s honor.

“We know that too often when police show up to a scene of a crisis, they escalate that crisis,” said Jennifer Rojas of the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California. “Hector should be with his family. He should have not been killed that night, and the police should have not used deadly force that evening.”

Fullerton Mayor Bruce Whitaker also spoke at the vigil.

“I’ve often spoken out against the Peace Officers’ Bill of Rights, [which] causes City Council members and mayors to become silent,” Whitaker said. “We’re told by legal experts and by everyone else in the system that we must put on a muzzle, or sit on our hands and just be mute. I’m not wired that way.”

Whitaker compared the incident to the Fullerton police killing of Kelly Thomas, a mentally ill homeless man. That incident sparked a national uproar, though the officers were acquitted of all charges.

Whitaker had been on the council for a few months when Thomas was beaten. Whitaker said he and his wife, Linda, were the only city officials to attend Thomas’ funeral.

“Over time I found out from eye witnesses that the accounts that we were being given, officially, were not accurate, and they were not truthful,” Whitaker said. “My goal back then was to do what I could do. We couldn’t bring Kelly back, someone who had schizophrenia or someone who was disabled to that degree that he didn’t receive the mercy that should be incumbent upon all of us to provide to someone in distress. So my goal as a council member then, and since then, is to do what I can to.”

Whitaker said he sent a letter to the district attorney’s office last week seeking answers on the investigation after receiving unanimous approval from the City Council. Edds did not confirm that the district attorney’s office received the letter.

Hernandez was shot on May 27, 2020 on West Avenue.

According to a video posted online by Fullerton police, one of Hernandez’s sons called to report his stepfather for being drunk, hitting his brother and brandishing a knife. The boy also reported that Hernandez had armed himself with a gun and fired the weapon. The video includes a recording of the 911 call.

Body-worn camera footage of the shooting shows Ferrell approaching Hernandez’s home with his police dog. Officers have their guns drawn.

Advocates have pointed out that police have released only selected portions of the body cam footage.

“The community must have access to all body camera footage of the incident,” Rojas has said. “The footage that is currently available to the public is highly editorialized and serves to exonerate the officer and prosecute Hector Hernandez.”

In the footage released by the Police Department, as Ferrell goes up to the home, he directs the dog toward Hernandez, who is standing in his frontyard with his hands up. The dog first runs toward other officers before being focused back on Hernandez.

As the K-9 turns and rushes toward him, Hernandez puts one of his arms down and takes a knife from his pocket. After the dog takes him down, he stabs the dog near the shoulder blade.

Ferrell runs up to Hernandez, yells, “He’s got a knife!” and fires two shots at him.

Brown and others contend that the dog should never have been directed toward Hernandez. In a previous interview, Brown said Hernandez had his hands raised and lowered his hand to his knife only when the dog rushed him. Then, Ferrell fired at Hernandez while he was on his back.

“The K-9 officer got concerned about his dog,” Brown said, adding: “I mean he just got totally reckless because it was like he just got tunnel vision. He focused on, ‘Oh, my God, he’s hurting my dog, I’m gonna stop him now….’ That’s exactly what it seems like happened — he lost all control of his training and reasonable thinking and just decided, I need to do this.”

Garo Mardirossian, the attorney who represented Thomas’ family, is representing Hernandez’s relatives in a lawsuit against the city.

Mardirossian has said Ferrell used excessive force — Hernandez was complying with every order the officers gave him.

“This K-9 officer for no good reason releases his dog,” Mardirossian said. “The dog is smart enough to see that there is no danger and starts running toward his K-9 unit. He’s thinking ‘OK, time to go.’ This man’s got his hands up, he’s no threat.

He continued: “Neither one of those shots were necessary. Nobody was being threatened.”

Brazil writes for Times Community News.




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