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MTS, transit security agree to $5.5M settlement with family of man involved in 2019 scuffle with officers

Posted at 11:49 AM, Apr 19, 2021
and last updated 2021-04-19 20:35:51-04

SAN DIEGO (KGTV) — The MTS and Transit System Security have agreed to a $5.5 million settlement with the family of a 24-year-old man who died shortly after a scuffle with transit police officers in 2019.

MTS said in a release that the agencies agreed to the settlement with the family of Angel Zapata Hernandez and also to changes to policies and training for their security personnel.

"I am gratified that the responsible agencies have resolved this without formal litigation," said Claudia Hernandez. "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."

Hernandez, who had suffered from schizophrenia, was seen by the train tracks near Santa Fe Depot on Oct. 15, 2019. An MTS officer confronted him and Hernandez eventually fled. He was stopped and handcuffed by MTS and TSS officers, who say they were concerned with Hernandez's size and movements and placed him on the ground face-down. Video of the incident showed two officers had placed their knees on top of Hernandez.

See the full incident video below. WARNING: Viewer discretion is advised:

During their restraint, Hernandez stopped breathing. Despite CPR, he never resumed breathing. He was declared dead at the hospital.

Sharon Cooney, CEO of MTS, adds that in reviewing the case, the agency recognizes a different approach may have prevented Hernandez's death:

"Our deepest sympathies have always been with Angel’s family. In reviewing this case, MTS and TSS recognize that a different approach may have prevented Angel’s death. We are determined to continue our reform of security policies and procedures to help ensure that this will never happen again."

In the aftermath of Hernandez's death, the agency says it has implemented several reforms, including changes to its use of force policy; banning the carotid restraint, chokeholds, and keen pressure on the neck, throat, or head; requiring use of force to be propositional to the seriousness of the offense; requiring intervention if witnesses excessive force by another; requiring de-escalation tactics; and requiring a warning prior to use of force.

The MTS says that the code compliance inspector involved in the incident has since resigned his position, though in a decision that was not related to this incident. The TSS employee involved has also resigned, according to MTS.

In a statement, the San Diego County District Attorney's Office said that criminal charges were not filed:

"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."