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Denver Police Killing of LGBT Teen Jessica Hernandez Sparks Outcry as Officers’ Claims Disputed

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The fatal police shooting of a teenage girl in Denver has drawn protests amidst a nationwide push for more police accountability. On the morning of January 26, Denver police shot and killed 17-year-old Jessica Hernandez. They say she and several teenage friends were driving a stolen car that struck and injured an officer. Police Chief Robert White says his officers repeatedly told her to get out of the car before they opened fire. But a passenger says Hernandez lost control of the car only after she was shot and became unconscious. Witnesses say Hernandez was dragged from the car, apparently unconscious. A video captured by a neighbor shows police handcuffed and appeared to search her after she was shot, rolling her on her back and stomach as she lay limp and motionless. The two officers involved in the shooting have been put on administrative leave while the incident is investigated. Last Thursday, activists at the National Conference on LGBT Equality that took place in Denver protested Hernandez’s killing by forcing Mayor Michael Hancock to cancel a planned speech. And on Saturday, an estimated 800 people gathered for Hernandez’s funeral. We are joined by two guests: Mimi Madrid Puga, a community organizer and board member of the Colorado Anti-Violence Program, and Qusair Mohamedbhai, a civil rights lawyer and attorney for the Hernandez family.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. We’re on the road in Denver, Colorado, broadcasting from Denver Open Media. We turn now to a police shooting of a teenage girl here in Denver that’s drawn protests amidst a nationwide push for more police accountability. It was the morning of January 26 when Denver police shot and killed 17-year-old Jessica Hernandez. They say she and several teenage friends were driving a stolen car that struck and injured an officer. Police Chief Robert White says his officers repeatedly told her to get out of the car before they opened fire. But a passenger in the car, who spoke with KUSA in Denver, says Hernandez lost control of the car only after she was shot and became unconscious.

PASSENGER WITNESS: Cops walked up. They were on the side of her, and they shot the window, and they shot her. That’s when she wrecked, and that’s when the cop got hit.

AMY GOODMAN: Denver police do not use in-car dashboard cameras. We invited someone from the police department to join us on the show, but they declined, saying it would be inappropriate for them to comment while the case is under investigation. The shooting of Jessica Hernandez marks at least the fourth time in seven months Denver police have fired at a moving vehicle, despite a policy urging officers to try to move out of the way instead of shooting. Two of those shootings resulted in the drivers’ deaths.

In a statement, Hernandez’s parents said, quote, “We are dismayed that the [Denver Police Department] has already defended the actions of the officers and blamed our daughter for her own death, even while admitting they have very little information. … [T]his unjustified shooting of our daughter is only the latest sign of an issue that requires federal oversight,” they said. In an interview, Jessica Hernandez’s mother also raised concerns about how her daughter was treated by police after they shot her. This is Laura Sonya Rosales Hernandez.

LAURA SONYA ROSALES HERNANDEZ: [translated] I was expecting the paramedics to take my daughter’s body out with caution, but, no, they slammed her body to the floor and dragged her like garbage.

AMY GOODMAN: Witnesses say Jessica Hernandez was dragged from the car, apparently unconscious. A video captured by a neighbor shows police handcuffed and appeared to search her after she was shot, rolling her on her back and stomach as she lay limp and motionless. The two officers involved in the shooting have been put on administrative leave while the incident is investigated.

Last Thursday, activists, angered by Jessica’s death, took over the stage at the National Conference on LGBT Equality that was held here in Denver, forcing Denver Mayor Michael Hancock to cancel his speech there. And on Saturday, an estimated 800 people gathered for the funeral of Jessica Hernandez, or Jessie, as she’s known by her friends.

For more, we’re joined right now by two guests. Mimi Madrid Puga is with us, a community organizer and board member of the Colorado Anti-Violence Program. And Qusair Mohamedbhai, civil rights lawyer, attorney for the family of Jessica Hernandez.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Qusair, let’s begin with you. Explain what you understand has happened. What happened on that morning of January 26th?

QUSAIR MOHAMEDBHAI: We’re cobbling together the facts still, but what we do know is that Jessica and four other teenagers between the ages of 15 and 17 were in a vehicle, and law enforcement descended on them on a report of suspicious activity. The vehicle was not moving at the time. And what we do know, as well, is that Jessica was killed by three or four bullets that were shot through the driver-side window, with the car either stationary or barely moving forward. The witnesses that we have interviewed have all disputed the police version of the events that said that she was either driving at somebody or that there was even a officer that was struck at the scene.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, explain the scene, like what does—this was an alley, where the car was?

QUSAIR MOHAMEDBHAI: Yes. So the car was parked in an alley to the right side. And they were teenagers acting like teenagers. And police came from the front and the rear in vehicles. It’s reported that they have might have been unmarked.

AMY GOODMAN: What time was it?

QUSAIR MOHAMEDBHAI: It was 6:30 in the morning. It was reported that they might have been unmarked vehicles. And as Jessie reportedly put the car in reverse, almost at that exact moment, she was shot and killed, three times from bullets all traveling from left to right.

AMY GOODMAN: How do you know where these bullets came from?

QUSAIR MOHAMEDBHAI: The family. Fortunately, the Denver Coroner’s Office has reached out to the family, and they’ve informed us of some preliminary forensic and pathology results.

AMY GOODMAN: Did you do a second autopsy?

QUSAIR MOHAMEDBHAI: There was a second autopsy done.

AMY GOODMAN: So, you’re saying she was shot from the left side. She was the driver. So a police officer was standing right outside her door?


AMY GOODMAN: To the side of her.


AMY GOODMAN: And they shot her into her side.

QUSAIR MOHAMEDBHAI: That’s correct. All bullets traveled—the bullet that was likely fatal pierced—was almost horizontal, pierced her left lung, went through her heart, through her left ventricle, exited her right atrium, went through her right lung, and ultimately was lodged near her ribs.

AMY GOODMAN: And what happened next, according to what you understand?

QUSAIR MOHAMEDBHAI: Well, the pathology and forensics will show that there was a fairly substantial abrasion to her nose. And the eyewitness reports say that there was a substantial—her body was mishandled. She was violently pulled out, and there was likely a blunt force trauma to her face as she was taken down to the ground and handcuffed.

AMY GOODMAN: She was shot, she was unconscious, and she was handcuffed?

QUSAIR MOHAMEDBHAI: She was shot, she was most likely killed, and then she was handcuffed—rather violently.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to an interview that the Denver police chief, Robert White, did with The Denver Post. He offered his version of how Jessie Hernandez was fatally shot by police.

POLICE CHIEF ROBERT WHITE: Shortly after getting the—arriving on the scene—and they had received a call for suspicious auto. The first officer arrive there, ran the tags, and it was a stolen car. A second officer arrived. The officers exited the car in an attempt, several times, to ask the individuals to come out of the car. Obviously, that didn’t occur. And at some point, the original officer that responded to the scene, the vehicle started driving towards him, which pretty much had him between the car and, I think it was, a brick wall and a fence there. And out of fear for his safety, he fired several shots, and the other officer also fired several shots, striking the driver of the car, which was a 17-year-old juvenile. And she was pronounced at the hospital. The officer, the original officer, received a fracture, by the way, a broken fracture—a fracture to his leg as a result of the incident.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Denver Police Chief Robert White. So he’s saying there was an officer in front of the car and, I guess, an officer to the side, that the officer to the front of the car was shooting at her.

QUSAIR MOHAMEDBHAI: This is wishful thinking by the Denver Police Department. They have already changed and reformulated their public messaging here. First they said that an officer’s leg was broken at the scene. Then they’ve come out and said that a leg—the officer’s leg was fractured. And now, they’re not even being—they’re not even confirming that an officer was struck, only that an officer was injured. This is a largely cut-and-paste public narrative that the Denver police has had to do four times in the last seven months to justify the killing of people, minorities, unarmed minorities, in our community.

AMY GOODMAN: Mimi Madrid Puga, you’re an organizer with the Colorado Anti-Violence Program. How did you get involved with this?

MIMI MADRID PUGA: Mostly getting involved not only from community, but also understanding that Jessie could easily be one of the young people that we work with and could easily be myself and could easily be our community. We definitely feel that survivor support is crucial and necessary to any kind of organizing that we do in community, and we understand that Jessie’s murder leaves many survivors—her family, her siblings. She was the eldest of five that we know. And she was also a pillar in her community, her own community of chosen family. In all these services, in all these places, we’ve seen an influx of young, queer, lesbian, gay, bisexual young people who come to pay their respects and their support. And so, we know that we have to stand in solidarity between all these movements, between identities of race, identities of sexuality, identities of young people, too, because we see that young, queer people of color are not valued in this institution—for example, the police. Our lives are not valued. And we understand that our lives are sacred. Our lives are worth keeping. And Jessie was brutally murdered. And as a community, we stand with her and with her family, and ensuring that her story gets told in a real way, that she is not criminalized by the media, but that people tell the real story of who Jessie was, as an older sister, as a friend, as a lover and as a young person who had so much life left in her.

AMY GOODMAN: Eight hundred people came to the funeral?


AMY GOODMAN: The funeral took place, Qusair, at her church?

QUSAIR MOHAMEDBHAI: Yeah, the church that her family and her had attended their whole lives, the church where she was baptized and where she was recently confirmed.

AMY GOODMAN: The priest very emotional in the service?

QUSAIR MOHAMEDBHAI: The priest, at points, breaking down and crying over the loss of Jessie.

AMY GOODMAN: Mimi, have you spoken with Jessie’s family?

MIMI MADRID PUGA: Yes, we have. As our group, at Branching Seedz of Resistance, a lot of us come from that Mexican family. A lot of us are first-generation people who are born here. A lot of us share the same identities and some of the same experiences as Jessie. Ten years ago, I was going through the same rites of passage of being on the streets and being a young person and taking cars and being with my friends.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you mean, “taking cars”?

MIMI MADRID PUGA: Either taking cars or being in situations that are—can be deemed as criminal, but are just rites of passages for lot of young people. And that’s one of the things that we’ve been talking about, is where is our culture, where is our art, and where are these institutions here protecting us to provide young people with opportunities and good rites of passages.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to turn to Jessie’s cousin. After Jessie was killed, her cousin Jose Castaneda protested outside the District Attorney’s Office and confronted Deputy District Attorney Doug Jackson.

JOSE CASTANEDA: I feel like there was a better solution to this. There is other tactics that they can use. There is other weapons that they could have used. It’s five teenagers. There is no reason for you to open fire on any teenager no matter what. I can understand if somebody got out the car and pulled out a gun on him or something, but there was no incident whatsoever. He got hit by a car. My cousin got shot dead. Nobody is going to take that pain away! They can fix his leg. They can do whatever. But nobody is going to bring her back.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Jose Castaneda protesting outside the District Attorney’s Office. Can you comment on this, Mimi?

MIMI MADRID PUGA: Absolutely. The young people in Denver and the young people across the nation are hurt, are in pain and need healing. This is a traumatizing event for all the young people that Jessie shared her life with—her cousins, her family, even her school. These are the very same people that we’re supposed to be trusting in and who is supposed to protect us. And when we see this happen, there’s a level of pain and healing that needs to happen in community.

AMY GOODMAN: How does these protests, that have been growing—I mean, 800 people at the funeral, they did not know Jessie, all of them, but came out in solidarity—fit into the Black Lives Matter movement?

MIMI MADRID PUGA: Absolutely. I think that there’s a sense of solidarity. And there’s a saying that says, “An attack on community is an attack on me.” And so I think that a lot of people were able to see Jessie’s case, are able to see Jessie’s family, with that empathy that the priest talked about at her service. Empathy is what we need today. And so, moving forward, solidarity is the number one thing on the spot. We need to have solidarity between race, between gender, between orientation, between ages, and have an intergenerational movement of healing.

AMY GOODMAN: Qusair Mohamedbhai, can you talk about the police shooting at a moving vehicle here in Denver, what the rules are?

QUSAIR MOHAMEDBHAI: The policies in Denver are largely antiquated. At places on the East Coast, more sophisticated organizations completely forbid the shooting of—at moving vehicles, because it’s commonsense that shooting at a vehicle is not going to stop it from moving. Denver police has a largely cowboy, Hollywood mentality where they think that shooting at a car will suddenly cause it to blow up and stop. It’s just—it’s not true. And so, Denver’s policies and their inability to correct them, despite four deaths in the last seven months, has largely contributed to Jessie’s death.

AMY GOODMAN: Again, how many times in the last few months?

QUSAIR MOHAMEDBHAI: Four deaths in the last seven months.

AMY GOODMAN: What are you calling for now?

QUSAIR MOHAMEDBHAI: We’re calling for the Denver District Attorney’s Office to step aside voluntarily and allow an outside agency, such as the FBI, to investigate these officers criminally. We’re asking the Denver Police Department to no longer investigate and police their own. These are broken systems. And it also just—it’s commonsense that brothers who are going to be investigating brothers, the outcome is predictable. And we know, based upon the Denver district attorney’s failure to prosecute any police officer for shootings since 1992, we know the result. We know that the Denver district attorney is going to exonerate these police officers.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Mimi, the issues of Jessie’s LGBT identity. The shooting comes at a time of increased violence against LGBT people. At least five transgender women of color have been murdered so far this year.

MIMI MADRID PUGA: Absolutely. It’s a pattern that we’re seeing that—again, I said queer, transgender folks see six times more violence than straight white people. And so, this is definitely a pattern that’s happening across the nation and across the globe. Queer folks are being attacked and murdered and killed, and our lives are not being valued as what they’re for.

AMY GOODMAN: How do you think police perceived Jessie?

MIMI MADRID PUGA: I’m not entirely sure, but Jessie was definitely masculine-presenting. She had short hair. And I think that whether we are queer, whether we’re passing as women or we’re passing as men, it doesn’t matter anymore. We’re being shot regardless of what we look like, especially if we look like men, men of color. Even if we identify as women, we’re being shot at at the rate as men. And so, we’re asking people to text, to get more information with a Presente.org petition, “Justice for Jessie,” and the number is 225568, to get more information and sign a petition.

AMY GOODMAN: The police have been put, Qusair, on administrative leave?


AMY GOODMAN: Is there a grand jury been impaneled?

QUSAIR MOHAMEDBHAI: Based on the history of the Denver District Attorney’s Office, it is unlikely.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you both for being with us. We’ll certainly continue to follow this case. Qusair Mohamedbhai, civil rights lawyer, attorney for the family of Jessica Hernandez, and Mimi Madrid Puga, a community organizer, board member of the Colorado Anti-Violence Program.

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