MTS announces $5.5M settlement, releases video following in-custody death

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WARNING: The video below contains graphic images that viewers may find disturbing.

WARNING: The video below contains graphic images and language that viewers may find disturbing.

SAN DIEGO — The San Diego Metropolitan Transit System announced Monday that the family of a man who died after he was taken into custody near the Santa Fe Depot downtown will receive a $5.5 million settlement. MTS also released video of the incident.

MTS Board Chair and County Supervisor Nathan Fletcher announced the settlement alongside Angel Zapata Hernandez’s family. Hernandez died while in custody of a MTS Code Compliance Inspector and a Transit System Security employee in October of 2019.

“MTS acknowledges that serious mistakes were made and that Angel’s death never should have happened,” Fletcher said. “Angel’s life was precious and he should not have died. We can’t let this happen again.”

The MTS officer and security employee approached Hernandez, 24, who suffered from schizophrenia, October 15, 2019 after he was seen “acting erratically” near the railroad tracks, police said at the time. After the MTS officer confronted him, Hernandez ran for about 100 yards before he stopped and “submitted to handcuffing,” MTS said in a news release.

“Concerned with his size and movements, the MTS and TSS officers took him to the ground, where they placed him in a prone, face down position,” the news release said. “During restraint, Angel stopped breathing. Despite the administration of CPR, he never resumed breathing on his own and was declared dead at 9:28 p.m.”

The official cause of death was listed as a sudden cardiopulmonary arrest while in a prone restraint.

Attorney Eugene Iredale, who represents Hernandez’s family, alleged Hernandez died as a result of positional asphyxia when he was held prone, face-down with pressure on his back and neck. He alleged an MTS officer held Hernandez down with a knee on his neck for more than six minutes.

San Diego police said in 2019 that Hernandez appeared to “be in medical distress” when officers arrived. They called for paramedics and provided first-aid until they were relieved by San Diego Fire-Rescue Department personnel, but all lifesaving attempts were unsuccessful.

As part of the settlement, MTS and Transit System Security agreed to changes in policies and training for their security personnel. MTS changed its use of force policy in July 2020, banning the use of carotid restraints, choke holds and knee pressure on the neck, throat or head.

“Our deepest sympathies have always been with Angel’s family,” Sharon Cooney, chief executive officer of MTS, said Monday. “In reviewing this case, MTS and TSS recognize that a different approach may have prevented Angel’s death.”

MTS also added new requirements, including mandating that use of force to “be proportional to the seriousness of the subject’s offense.” Security staff now have a duty to intervene if they witness excessive force by another employee and use de-escalation tactics when feasible. They’re also required to give warning before the use of force, the news release said.

MTS said the code compliance inspector involved in Hernandez’s death resigned “in a decision not related to this incident.” The TSS employee also resigned. 

In a statement to City News Service, 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.”

“I am gratified that the responsible agencies have resolved this without formal litigation,” Hernandez’s mother Claudia Hernandez said. “Even more importantly, the agencies have voluntarily made changes in their training and procedures to help minimize the recurrence of unnecessary use of force. While nothing can bring back my son, these changes mean my son’s life contributed to the betterment of society.”

Claudia told FOX 5 she has not seen the video released Monday.

“I heard clips of it throughout the video but I do not want to watch the video,” she said.

Angel’s grandmother, Maria Hernandez, and other family members watched the video through tears.

“It hurts so much to see the way they had him and I think at one part I don’t see why they kept him down,” Maria told FOX 5.

Iredale said the settlement should serve as a model for how cases involving wrongful death and excessive force should be handled.

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