Denver's LGBT and Latino residents are looking for answers after local police officers shot and killed a 17-year-old lesbian during an early-morning confrontation Monday, reigniting a tense, ongoing national conversation about police use of force and interactions with communities of color.
According to initial police statements, 17-year-old Jessica Hernandez was behind the wheel of a stolen car when officers responded to a call about suspicious activity in an alley around 6:30 a.m. Monday in north Denver's Park Hill neighborhood. Police claim the teenager struck an officer with the car, fracturing his leg and prompting the officers to open fire, ultimately killing Hernandez. An autopsy report ruled the cause of death to be multiple gunshot wounds and declared the death to be a homicide, reports Denver TV station KWGN.
Four other teenagers who were in the car were taken into custody at the time, some of whom claim the officers dragged Hernandez's body from the car and proceeded to search and handcuff her before offering medical attention. Family and friends of the deceased have demanded access to video that purportedly shows the teen being searched after being shot, reports KMGH.
"I think the facts will show that hopefully the officers’ reactions were correct," said Denver Police Department Chief Robert White in a Monday statement. "If they weren’t, we’ll certainly address that."
Police officials have since announced that none of the teens in the car had weapons.
The officers involved in the shooting were identified Wednesday as Daniel Greene, a 16-year veteran of the force, and Gabriel Jordan, who has been with the department for nine years and who was treated for a broken leg after he was allegedly pinned by the car between a brick wall and fence. Both officers have been placed on administrative leave, which is standard procedure following an officer-involved shooting.
But new eyewitness accounts contend the officers fired first — and that the car struck the officer after the wounded driver lost control of the vehicle, reports Denver's KUSA TV.
"When the cops walked up, they were on [Hernandez's] side of the car, and they shot the window and they shot her," a witness who was reportedly in the car during the shooting told KUSA. "That's when she wrecked, and that's when the cop got hit."
Friends and family who gathered at vigils to remember the teen, who went "Jessie," said she was openly gay, and frequently referred to a girlfriend of the deceased. A Facebook post by Hernandez from December also mentions a girlfriend. Demonstrators gathered in District Attorney Mitch Morrissey's office in downtown Denver on Tuesday, demanding a full, impartial investigation, and carrying signs with messages like "Cowards Shoot Girls" and "Your Badge Is Not a License to Kill."
The Denver Post reports that Monday's shooting is the fourth time in seven months that DPD officers have fired into a car they believed was being used as a weapon. Two people have been killed in those incidents, while another three have been injured, according to the Post.
In light of the number of officer-involved shootings incidents and the community tensions elevated by Hernandez's death, Independent Monitor Nick Mitchell announced Tuesday that his office is opening an investigation into the Denver Police Department's protocol around officer interactions with moving vehicles, promising to compare Denver's policies to those in other cities around the country, according to the Post.
As is standard procedure in officer-involved shootings, the Denver District Attorney is also conducting a full investigation into the circumstances around Hernandez's death, and will release a public report detailing the findings of that investigation, including the legal rationale for determining whether there was anything criminal on the part of the officers involved.