Monitor to probe Denver police policy on shooting into moving cars

Policies vary among agencies, and some departments have banned or discouraged the practice

By Sadie Gurman and P. Solomon Banda 
Associated Press

DENVER — The mother of a 17-year-old girl who was shot and killed by Denver police said she wants a second, independent autopsy because she doesn't trust the official investigation into the death of her daughter.

The demand by Laura Sonya Rosales Hernandez came as the Denver Police Department and an independent city official who monitors the agency revealed they both are investigating policies regarding officers shooting at moving vehicles.

The Monday shooting of Jessica Hernandez was the fourth time in seven months that a Denver officer shot at a vehicle after perceiving it as a threat.

Police have said two officers fired after Hernandez drove a stolen car into one of them. A passenger in the car disputed that account, saying police opened fire before the vehicle struck the officer. Police said none of the five people in the car was armed.

"I want another autopsy on my daughter so we can know how much damage they did," Hernandez said, speaking in Spanish on Wednesday inside the trailer home where her daughter lived with five siblings. "I want to know, how did this happen? I want to know everything."

The U.S. Supreme Court has said that officers may not use deadly force to stop a fleeing suspect unless the person is believed to pose significant physical harm. Still, policies vary among agencies, and some departments have banned or discouraged the practice.

The Albuquerque Police Department, for example, ordered officers in June to stop shooting at moving vehicles after a U.S. Justice Department report found a pattern of excessive force.

The Cleveland Police Department changed its policy before federal investigators concluded its officers also often used unnecessary force.

In Denver, the Police Department and independent monitor Nicholas Mitchell separately are looking at how national standards compare to Denver's policy, which allows officers to fire at moving cars if they have no other reasonable way to prevent death or serious injury.

Denver's policy says, "An officer threatened by an oncoming vehicle shall, if feasible, move out of the way rather than discharging a firearm."

The reviews will look at several cases in which officers fired at cars they considered to be deadly weapons, including the fatal shooting of Ryan Ronquillo, 21, who police said tried to hit them with his car outside a funeral home in July. Prosecutors have declined to file charges in that case.

Experts say shooting and disabling a driver can send a car out of control.

"If you were to shoot at the driver, you would have an unguided missile, basically," said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, which suggests departments forbid officers from shooting at moving vehicles unless there is another deadly threat involved, such as a weapon.

Police identified the officers in Hernandez's shooting as Daniel Greene, a 16-year-veteran, and Gabriel Jordan, a nine-year veteran.

Jordan suffered a broken leg, department spokesman Sonny Jackson said, declining to comment further about details of the case.

Hernandez's mother said her daughter made a mistake by "grabbing" a car that did not belong to her but didn't deserve to pay with her life.

"How much do they need to investigate?" she asked. "It's all done. They did it. They killed her. All I want is justice."

A passenger in the car, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of safety concerns, said Hernandez lost control of the vehicle because she was unconscious after being shot.

Prosecutors promised a thorough inquiry, while a small group of angry protesters demanded swift answers and called for a special prosecutor to investigate the death.

The shooting occurred amid a national debate about officers' use of force fueled by killings in Ferguson, Missouri, and New York City.

Investigators in the Denver case will be relying on witnesses and police accounts because the department has only just started to buy body cameras for its officers, and those involved were not yet outfitted. Denver doesn't use in-car dashboard cameras, either, which experts consider a best practice for accountability but can be costly for larger departments.

The shooting happened after police determined a suspicious vehicle in an alley had been stolen, Chief Robert White said. The two officers opened fire after Hernandez drove into one of them as they approached the car on foot, police said.

The passenger said officers came up to the car from behind and fired four times into the driver's side window as they stood at the side of the car, narrowly missing others inside.

Witnesses said officers with their guns drawn then pulled people out of the car, including Hernandez, who they handcuffed and searched. Her mother criticized the way police handled her after she was shot.

"They dragged her on the floor and threw her down like a piece of garbage," she said.

Both officers involved in the shooting have been placed on routine administrative leave pending the investigation.

Copyright 2015 The Associated Press

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