Rather than fight a long, expensive and painful court battle, the city of Denver and the family of a 17-year-old girl killed by police chose a different path.
Instead, city officials and the parents of Jessica Hernandez, the girl shot to death in an alley in January 2015, sat down to reach an agreement they hope will resolve the tension surrounding a controversial police shooting that prompted protests and forced the department to change its policy on shooting at moving cars.
City officials on Wednesday announced a settlement that includes a $1 million payout and an agreement that police will no longer voluntarily release criminal histories of those they killed. The City Council will be asked on Monday to approve the $999,999 payment of taxpayer dollars.
“The death of Jessica Hernandez was a tragedy,” City Attorney Kristin Bronson said. “But the collective resolution of this civil matter marks the beginning of our work to heal as a community.”
The killing of a young Latina, LGBTQ girl made national news during a time when police killings of unarmed minorities were causing riots in other cities such as Ferguson, Mo. In Denver, it led to marches and vandalism of a memorial for fallen police officers.
After Wednesday’s announcement, Jessica’s parents, Laura Rosales and Jose Hernandez, reluctantly faced a phalanx of reporters to speak about their daughter.
“I don’t want another family to go through what we’re going through because it’s a pain so strong that no one can imagine it,” a tearful Rosales said in Spanish. “I know that we want peace, and I know that we don’t have it — because it’s not the same since she’s not been at home.”
The decision to settle did not have anything to do with the officers’ conduct, Bronson said. The officers were exonerated of wrongdoing by the district attorney and Police Chief Robert White.
“We don’t really want to litigate the case in the press — that’s not really our goal,” Bronson told The Denver Post in an interview. “Even with an exoneration, you’re still going to get a lawsuit, and that lawsuit is going to take years. And it is going to be very hurtful and divisive and costly. It is not uncommon for cases like this, should they go to trial, to incur attorneys’ fees in excess of this settlement.”
The Hernandez family, represented by the Rathod Mohamedbhai law firm, never filed a lawsuit. But attorneys had filed notice that they were prepared to seek a legal claim, prompting the city to meet with them.
Negotiations picked up steam about five months ago, shortly after Bronson became city attorney. Mayor Michael Hancock and other city leaders met with the Hernandez family in November in what was described by both sides as an emotional exchange.
On Wednesday, Qusair Mohamedbhai, the family attorney, said the Hernandezes never supported violence in their daughter’s name, even calling various protest groups to denounce vandalism at the Denver police memorial.
“Above all, the family was motivated by a positive, peaceful resolution to the death of their beloved daughter,” Mohamedbhai said.
One element in the proposed settlement would require police to write a new policy that forbids the department from proactively releasing criminal background information on the people officers shoot. The department will continue to be covered by the state’s open records law, which requires it to release the information when asked.