A row of burning candles and makeshift crosses sits in a bleak alleyway here, marking the spot where 17-year-old Jessica Hernandez’s joyride in a stolen car came to a violent end.
Mimi Madrid Puga, 26 and a youth organizer, gazed at the memorial.
“I was Jessie 10 years ago,” she finally said. “I took cars. It’s a rite of passage for many teens, but it shouldn’t carry the death penalty.”
Last week, Hernandez and four other teenage girls were cruising Denver’s middle-class Park Hill neighborhood in someone else’s Honda when they were spotted by police.
The officers said that they ordered the girls out of the car, but that instead Hernandez tried to run them down, so they opened fire. But some of her passengers say the car careened toward police after Hernandez was shot and lost control of it. One officer reported an injured leg, though how it happened is unknown.
Witnesses said she was dragged from the car, apparently unconscious, and handcuffed before she died.
The incident has sparked angry protests in Denver echoing those held over controversial police killings in Cleveland, New York, Albuquerque and Ferguson, Mo.
“It is extremely troubling that those empowered and permitted to carry guns whose primary charge is to serve and protect are continually involved in the taking of the lives of so many minority children who themselves are not armed,” said the Rev. Patrick Demmer of the Greater Denver Ministerial Alliance.
Another 17-year-girl was shot dead last week after pulling a knife in a Texas police station. That incident was captured on video.
Denver Police Chief Robert White has vowed to carry out a fair and transparent investigation into Hernandez’s death, but her parents are demanding a federal inquiry.
“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,” said Jose Hernandez and Laura Sonia Rosales in a statement Friday. “In recent months, police killings have torn apart communities across this nation, and the unjustified shooting of our daughter is only the latest sign of an issue that requires federal oversight.”
The incident marks the fourth time in seven months that Denver police have fired on moving vehicles they say were being used as deadly weapons. Two of those shootings resulted in the drivers’ deaths.
“There are unfortunately too many civilians being shot too frequently in Denver and the rest of the country as well,” said Mark Silverstein, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado. “The emerging trend in law enforcement is that if a moving vehicle is coming toward you, don’t shoot — get out of the way.”
Chief White says he is reassessing the department’s policy.
“There is already a high threshold” for firing at moving vehicles, said Denver police spokesman Sonny Jackson. “You have to believe your life is in danger.”
Meanwhile, many law enforcement experts say shooting at speeding cars is risky and often ineffective.
“Most progressive police departments in this country and around the world prohibit it, with the very small caveat of saying you can do it if you are trapped,” said Geoffrey Alpert, professor of criminal justice and an expert in police use of force at the University of South Carolina. “Shoot the driver and you have an unguided missile.”
The physics of accurately hitting a target in a fast-moving vehicle with its hardened rubber, metal and curved glass surfaces make it even more challenging.
“Shooting at vehicles in practice is nothing like you see on television or at the movies,” said Vincent Henry, a former New York City cop and director of the Homeland Security Institute at Long Island University. “Firing a perfect shot with perfect placement is usually not going to happen.”
In this case, however, Denver officers hit their target, killing the unarmed teenager and sparking widespread outrage.
The slight, gangly Hernandez was the eldest of six children in the family, which lives in suburban Thornton. She wrote poetry, attended high school and was openly gay.
Her parents called her a “beautiful girl who brought love and joy to her family and friends.” But this wasn’t her first run-in with the law.
The Associated Press reported that she was cited Jan. 1 for eluding an officer and resisting arrest after being stopped traveling 80 mph in a 55-mph zone.
Her supporters worry that she is being vilified unfairly.
“I would say stealing cars is pretty common, but when it’s someone of color the narrative is that they are a criminal,” said Angell Perez, executive director of the Victim Offender Reconciliation Program in Denver. “If a suburban kid gets caught, they are put in a diversion program. Jessie was gunned down. That shows just how disposable young people of color are.”
Back in the alley, Mimi Madrid Puga looked at a small sign that read, “We are sorry for your daughter — God bless you!!”
“In many ways, Jessie was typical. The intricacies of her life don’t matter,” she said. “What matters are young lives. Period.”