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MTS transit officers get off the green line trolley route at the 12th and Imperial station. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

MTS pulled off something pretty remarkable this week.

It revealed that two of its officers, one an MTS employee and one a contractor, killed an unarmed man by kneeling on his neck for more than six minutes. In doing so, it tacitly acknowledged that the agency had managed to keep the circumstances of Angel Hernandez’s death a secret from the public during a period of intense scrutiny of law enforcement.

And, the kicker: MTS managed to draw praise from some of its harshest critics on the very week that another death at the hands of police under remarkably similar circumstances continued to stir up outrage, even as that officer was held accountable by the system.

Kudos to MTS’s PR team, truly. But because the agency managed to evade the scrutiny this incident richly deserves, I have some thoughts. Hernandez’s death highlighted an astonishing number of problems with many of the systems at work here: MTS, the justice system that evaluates these incidents and the media that covers them.

First and foremost, despite the reforms MTS agreed to as part of its settlement with Hernandez’s family, serious concerns remain. Its officers are not sworn peace officers, which means that even the limited accountability measures that exist for police officers in California don’t apply. Neither MTS nor the DA believe the agency’s officers are subject to the state’s new use-of-force standards.

VOSD requested footage of Hernandez’s death a year ago. The agency denied the request (in a letter that doesn’t meet any of its obligations under the law, or cite even a single relevant exemption). But the agency is right about one thing: It’s probably not subject to new state laws compelling the release of body camera footage. MTS could change its policies to require transparency. It hasn’t – despite all the back-patting about its new policies. It chose to release the footage years later, only after it had reached a settlement with the family and crafted an elaborate PR strategy for the rollout.

Hernandez’s death also drives home the incredible power and discretion afforded to prosecutors – power that is often wielded in ways that protect the office over the public.

In explaining her decision not to prosecute the officers, District Attorney Summer Stephan said something chilling: Her office told the Union-Tribune “it is ‘notable that MTS has instituted significant policy changes because of what occurred.’”

There is no universe in which a person or agency should be able to evade accountability for killing someone because of promised future changes. Even if the reforms MTS agreed to prevent countless deaths – I sure hope they do – it won’t bring Hernandez back to life. It doesn’t excuse his life being extinguished under an officer’s knee. It doesn’t.

The DA’s suggestion that the reforms excuse her from holding the officers accountable is truly terrifying. It’s also wildly unclear why she believes it’s not worth pursuing charges. If the death of an unarmed person that’s caught on camera isn’t prosecutable, Jesus, what is?

Finally, the whole episode underscores the media’s sacred role in chronicling these incidents responsibly. Far too often, the police’s version of events is taken as gospel and trumpeted uncritically. Reports of Hernandez’s death at the time say only that he died “in custody” – wildly obscuring the fact that officers knelt on his neck, killing him.

MTS’s press releases and other public statements about the settlement took pains to emphasize that Hernandez was mentally ill – a fact that was repeated prominently by news outlets covering the story. Certainly his illness could help explain why he was walking on trolley tracks to begin with, but it doesn’t explain why he was suffocated to death when he was already handcuffed and on the ground, unarmed.

MTS officials’ public statements last week suggest the system can be counted on to fix itself. It can’t – not by a longshot.

What VOSD Learned This Week

It’s that time of year, as budget deadlines start to creep up, that everything is suddenly all about money. Let us count the ways.

The city budget process is in full swing. Andy Keatts examined the debate over the police budget, and we delved further into police pensions and more on the podcast.

The city might get more money soon if courts decide 2020’s Measure C actually passed, but Lisa Halverstadt notes that it’s possible San Diego could get money for homelessness and road repairs from the measure without ever building a Convention Center expansion – which was the whole premise for the hotel tax increase. Another way the city could get a lot more money is by ending the People’s Ordinance – and one councilman is ready to make it happen.

Meanwhile, city leaders are pushing residents to apply for rental assistance, fearing money will be left on the table despite the need.

Now let’s talk about money from the federal government. Ashly McGlone broke down how the 10 biggest school districts in the county have spent CARES Act funding. As money continues to pour into schools, educators are trying to figure out how to spend it to address kids’ intense mental health needs.

And then there’s the $300 million the EPA has promised to help address the border sewage crisis. One source of the sewage is coming from Mexico, but officials in the U.S. want the money spent on this side of the border.

And High Tech High employees who are unionizing told Will Huntsberry that the decision isn’t about the money.

What I’m Reading

Line of the Week

“It’s exhausting to watch institutions protect abusers — giving them chance after undeserved chance. I don’t care if these men are a once-in-a-generation writer or artist or thinker. There is no talent greater than women’s right to be safe.” – Amen.

Sara Libby

Sara Libby was VOSD’s managing editor until 2021. She oversaw VOSD’s newsroom and content.

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