The San Diego Metropolitan Transit System (MTS) on Monday admitted wrongdoing and announced it would pay $5.5 million to the family of a 24-year-old man who in 2019 stopped breathing while being detained by two of their employees and died.
Angel Zapata Hernandez was detained by an MTS code compliance officer and a security officer after wandering onto the train platform at the Santa Fe Depot in downtown San Diego on Oct. 15, 2019. After Hernandez ran from officers, he was handcuffed by the two security personnel held face down on the concrete, at times with a knee to his back and neck, before he lost consciousness and later died in a hospital, MTS CEO Sharon Cooney said.
"I’m here to say, without equivocation, the security personnel with MTS made mistakes on Oct. 15, 2019, that contributed to Mr. Hernandez’s death," Cooney said while committing the agency's employees to increased training in emergency response and de-escalation.
The family's attorney Eugene Iredale said he was held down with pressure from a knee for six minutes.
The code compliance inspector and security officer, who was employed by Transit System Security and contracted by MTS, both resigned from their positions. They were not named and MTS said the code compliance officer resigned in a decision unrelated to Hernandez's death.
Hernandez's mother, Claudia, held back tears as she talked about her son's loving spirit. She said the settlement wouldn't bring him back but hoped it would prevent future wrongful deaths.
"My son, Angel, he was a good person. He loved his family and we loved him. He loved to laugh, he loved his dog Luna, he loved his life," Claudia Hernandez said. "His death has left an emptiness in our hearts that will never go away. The best way to honor Angel’s memory is that no family ever has to suffer the needless loss of their child. My deepest hope is that this settlement and the changes that MTS has made will ensure that this never happens again.”
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MTS also released 15 minutes of video from security cameras and the two officer's body-worn cameras. The videos shows Hernandez wandering on the train platform, then shows the MTS employees chasing Hernandez and putting him in handcuffs; finally, it shows them holding him down as he continued to struggle.
Lawyers for the Hernandez family requested that the video not be released until a settlement had been reached in their case.
"This is very disturbing. I’ve seen it many times and it still disturbs me," Cooney said.
"We do believe that without a doubt, that the awful outcome could have been avoided had we provided better training for psychiatric emergency response and more robust de-escalation training,” Cooney said.
Included in the changes MTS is making to address these concerns are a revised use of force policy, increased de-escalation training and changes to their anti-biased policies and defense tactics. A training supervisor has been added full-time and additional training was added in dealing with emergency psychiatric responses.
The use of force changes went into effect in July 2020 and were modeled after the "8 Can't Wait" campaign, which urged police departments across the country to implement certain immediate policy changes to reduce brutality incidents.
MTS's changes included a ban of carotid restraints, chokeholds, and knee pressure on the neck, throat or head. It also required "use of force to be proportional to the seriousness of the subject’s offense; a duty to intervene if witnessing excessive force by another employee; requiring de-escalation tactics when feasible; and requiring a warning prior to the use of force."
Smaller changes include reducing emphasis on fare enforcement and changes their security officer uniforms to yellow from law enforcement blue. Both were meant to refocus the agency's efforts on community service.
The Hernandez family said Angel had a history of drug use but had been sober for over a year at the time of the altercation. He was also diagnosed with undifferentiated schizophrenia and took regular medication.
"Angel was a person who suffered from mental illness but by all accounts, he had one of the finest hearts, heart in the metaphorical sense, of anybody who has every lived," Iredale said.
Iredale praised MTS for accepting wrongdoing and making policy changes that may prevent further unwarranted loss of life.
“When this event occurred, MTS had an opportunity to do what many agencies do. They could have said, we didn’t do anything wrong. Our policies are fine. We will see you in court," Iredale said. "In this case, MTS, and particularly chairman Nathan Fletcher, chose a different path."
Supervisor Nathan Fletcher, who is chairman of the MTS board, acknowledged that the actions of the two MTS employees caused Hernandez's unwarranted death and vowed that the agency would take action to ensure their officers were trained to deal with similar incidents in the future.
"MTS is holding ourselves accountable for this mistake," Fletcher said. "We are accepting responsibility. We are apologizing. We are making substantive changes. We are pledging to never be in this situation again."