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$5.5 Million Settlement Reached With Family Of Man Who Died In MTS Custody

Angel Zapata Hernandez is pinned to the ground by a MTS code compliance officer and a private Transit System Security officer near the downtown Santa Fe Depot, Oct. 15, 2019.
San Diego Metropolitan Transit System
Angel Zapata Hernandez is pinned to the ground by a MTS code compliance officer and a private Transit System Security officer near the downtown Santa Fe Depot, Oct. 15, 2019.
As the nation waits for a verdict in the George Floyd killing, a case with a disturbingly similar set of facts has just been resolved in San Diego. In October 2019, 24-year old Angel Zepata Hernandez died after being restrained with knees in his back and on his neck by Transit law enforcement. Yesterday, a 5.5 million dollar settlement was announced in the case – as well as reforms in the policing policies of San Diego’s Metropolitan transit system.

The San Diego Metropolitan Transit System announced Monday that a $5.5 million settlement has been reached with the family of a schizophrenic man who died after he was taken into custody near the downtown Santa Fe Depot.

MTS officials also said the agency has revised its use-of-force policies and security training in the wake of the Oct. 15, 2019, death of 24- year-old Angel Zapata Hernandez.

Hernandez fled from an MTS code compliance officer after he was spotted near the tracks north of the depot and was taken to the ground by the MTS officer, as well as a private Transit System Security officer. After being taken into custody, Hernandez stopped breathing. He died later that night.

Drawing parallels to the ongoing Derek Chauvin murder trial in the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, attorney Eugene Iredale, who represents Hernandez's family, said the officers held Hernandez prone, face-down, and applied pressure to his back and neck. Iredale alleged the MTS officer put a knee on Hernandez's neck for more than six minutes, contributing to his death from positional asphyxia.

VIDEO: San Diego Metropolitan Transit System Video Of In-Custody Death Of Angel Zapata Hernandez

Board Chair Nathan Fletcher said the actions of the officers were "wrong" and that Hernandez's death was "tragic and never should have happened." As part of the settlement, MTS and TSS will pay $5.5 million in compensation to Hernandez's mother, Claudia Hernandez, and both agencies have agreed to make changes to their security policies and training.

Fletcher said, "Too many times, public agencies defend their actions and their policies. Too many times, public agencies are not forthcoming, they're not transparent, they do not accept responsibility. We are not going to do that. We're going to go in a different direction. MTS is holding ourselves accountable for this mistake."

Both the MTS and TSS officers have since resigned, though MTS said its former employee's resignation was unrelated to the death.

The MTS officer was not criminally charged.

In a statement, the San Diego County District Attorney's Office said, "The loss of Mr. Zapata-Hernandez' life under these circumstances is tragic and our condolences go out to his family and friends. It is notable that MTS has instituted significant policy changes because of what occurred. While the MTS employee involved was not a peace officer, this case and the policy changes undertaken are worthy of review by law enforcement to identify improvements on how lives can be better safeguarded. Based on the totality of the circumstances, evidence, and findings by the San Diego County Medical Examiner, our office has determined that criminal liability, as opposed to the different legal requirements of civil liability, could not be proven beyond a reasonable doubt."

VIDEO: $5.5 Million Settlement Reached With Family Of Man Who Died In MTS Custody

Sharon Cooney, MTS CEO, said, "Without equivocation, the security personnel with MTS made mistakes on Oct. 15, 2019, that contributed to Mr. Hernandez's death."

Cooney said MTS believes better training in psychiatric emergency response and de-escalation could have prevented the death, both of which are now in place in the agency's revised policies.

MTS use-of-force policy changes made last summer include banning carotid restraints, choke holds and knee pressure on the neck, throat or head. Use of force must also be proportional to the seriousness of the subject's offense; employees have a duty to intervene if witnessing excessive force by another employee; warnings are to be given prior to use of force; and de- escalation tactics are required when feasible.

Claudia Hernandez said, "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."