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$5.5 million settlement reached with family of man who died in MTS custody

After being taken into custody, Hernandez stopped breathing. He died later that night.

SAN DIEGO — 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.

Surveillance video and footage from body-worn cameras released Monday showed Hernandez was eventually placed on the ground and stopped breathing.

“My son, Angel, is a good person. He loved his family and we loved him. He loved to laugh. He loved his dog, Luna and his life. His death has left an emptiness in our hearts that will never go away,” said Claudia Hernandez, the victim’s mother.

Attorney Eugene Iredale, who represented the Hernandez family, drew parallels to the Derek Chauvin murder trial after the settlement was announced. Chauvin, a former Minneapolis police officer, was charged with murder in the death of George Floyd. Iredele claimed the MTS officer kept their knee on Hernandez’s neck for more than six minutes.

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 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."

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."

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