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Friends and family continue to wait on investigation into the shooting of Hector Hernandez

A memorial for Hector Hernandez at his former home on the one-year anniversary of his death in Fullerton.
A memorial for Hector Hernandez was placed in front of his former home on the one-year anniversary of his death in Fullerton.
(Raul Roa / Staff Photographer)

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 lent 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 frontyard by a Fullerton police officer, yet his friends, family and neighbors are still waiting for the results of an investigation into the incident.

They say the district attorney’s probe of the shooting has gone on far longer than expected. But they are continuing 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 city officials.

But Dist. Atty. Todd Spitzer’s office has not yet 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.

“Given the standards governing police use of force & video showing Mr. Hernandez to be on his back (a K-9 having taken him to the ground) at the time he was shot, I’m as concerned by the facts of this case as I am by Mr. Spitzer’s delay in reaching a charging decision.

“I’m calling on DA Spitzer to end the delay and make a decision, and to ensure the findings of his investigation are made public. There must be equal justice under the law. When our leaders fail to hold the powerful accountable we erode trust between law enforcement and the communities we are sworn to protect and serve.”

During the last year, there has also been an Internal Affairs investigation into the incident. Fullerton Police Cpl. Billy Phu said Tuesday that the investigation is still ongoing.

“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. “The findings of the district attorney’s independent legal review is taken into consideration as part of the internal affairs investigation. We withhold judgment and do not draw any conclusions until all facts are known and the investigations are complete.”

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 that documents on Hernandez’s shooting will be available on the webpage 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. Friends, family, neighbors and activists 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 for Hector Hernandez on the one-year anniversary of his death in Fullerton.
(Raul Roa / Staff Photographer)

Santiago spoke about Hernandez’s love for his wife and children. He said that Hernandez taught him how to be a father.

“He was such a good friend to me,” Santiago said. “How could he do so much, and never ask me for anything?”

In between speakers, chants broke out among the attendees.

“Say his name!” a man yelled.

“Hector Hernandez!” everyone responded.

In the steel-grey dusk, neighbors lit their prayer candles and laid 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. The incident sparked 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 in Yorba Linda.

“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 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...create a defense against these kinds of actions.”

Fullerton Mayor Bruce Whitaker speaks at a vigil for Hector Hernandez.
Fullerton Mayor Bruce Whitaker speaks at a vigil for Hector Hernandez.
(Raul Roa / Staff Photographer)

Following his speech at the vigil, Whitaker, who has been mayor since December, said in an interview that he felt guilty for initially not speaking out on behalf of Hernandez’s family and friends. Whitaker said he will try to help accelerate the investigation if possible.

“I think it’s incumbent upon us as council members to try to make sure that they get a full, thorough accounting of what happened,” Whitaker said. “Justice delayed is justice denied. So the delay is a very, very great concern ... When they say that an investigation is going to take several months but now it’s a year, accountability has to be applied somewhere.

”... I was very hopeful that maybe we’d learn something from the Kelly Thomas incident, maybe they’d be a little bit swifter in putting facts on the table, an accounting that would at least alleviate all those questions here in people’s minds.”

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.

“I write in behalf of the relatives, friends, co-workers and neighbors of Hector Hernandez, who died in front of his home on the 3600 block of W. West Avenue, Fullerton, as a result of an officer involved shooting on May 27, 2020,” the letter says. “Your office has been investigating this matter for nearly one year, and those who survive Mr. Hernandez have regularly appeared at Fullerton City Council meetings since late last year with demands and aggrieved pleas for information and findings of that investigation.

“At our City Council meeting on May 18, 2021, following many impassioned public comments from residents of west Fullerton and others, our City Council expressed unanimous support to contact your office. As mayor, I request and we appreciate your personal assistance in this matter.”

Bill Brown addresses the Fullerton City Council about Hector Hernandez in December.
(Raul Roa / Staff Photographer)

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 the police 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.

After police arrive on scene, body-worn camera footage of the shooting in the police video shows Ferrell approaching Hernandez’s home with his K-9 unit. Officers have their guns drawn.

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

“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 gets up to the home, he directs the dog toward Hernandez, who is standing in his frontyard with his hands up. The dog disobeys at first and runs toward other officers.

As the K-9 turns and rushes toward Hernandez to take him down, 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.

Ferrell pulls the dog from Hernandez while it tears away at his shirt.

Brown and others contend that the dog should never have been directed toward Hernandez. Brown said the dog didn’t even perceive Hernandez as a threat at first, as evidenced by it initially walking over to officers.

A sign at a Fullerton City Council meeting draws attention to Hector Hernandez, who was shot and killed by a police officer.
A sign at a Fullerton City Council meeting draws attention to Hector Hernandez, who was shot and killed by a police officer.
(Raul Roa / Staff Photographer)

Brown said in a prior interview that Hernandez had his hands raised and only lowered his hand to his knife 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. “The K-9 officer wasn’t being threatened at all. Nobody in the frontyard was threatened, other than the dog, because the dog was attacking him.”

Brown continued: “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 Kelly Thomas’ family, is representing Hernandez’s family in a lawsuit against the city.

Mardirossian has said that Ferrell used excessive force when no force was necessary because 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 towards his K-9 unit. He’s thinking ‘OK, time to go.’ This man’s got his hands up, he’s no threat.

“Then you see the officers yelling, trying to get [the dog] back and redirected, and to heal and then to attack. Why, why are you taking a man with his hands up?”

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

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