Denver District Attorney Beth McCann's July 20 announcement that no criminal charges would be filed against two cops in the fatal shooting of Jamie Fernandez doesn't fall under Colorado's new police-reform law, since the incident happened long before the legislation's signing last month — and that's fortunate for the agencies involved, since the handling of the case would otherwise have violated both the letter and the spirit of the new law.
How so? McCann's decision about the shooting, which occurred on August 15, 2019, took nearly a year to be completed — and delays have long been a tactic used to undermine potential community outrage over such events. Instead of releasing unedited body-camera footage of what happened, the Denver Police Department has issued a package of clips heavily edited and shaped to reflect the DPD's point of view (see it below). And the narrative in McCann's letter to Denver Chief of Police Paul Pazen suggests that the rapid escalation of force based on ultra-flimsy evidence may have led directly to Fernandez's death.
When asked about the eleven months-plus between Fernandez's death and the decision letter, Carolyn Tyler, spokesperson for McCann, explains via email: "It can take a while for the detectives to conduct interviews, retrieve necessary documents and videos and complete reports. It then takes us some time to review all of the material — including autopsy and toxicology reports — consult with the detectives and determine if criminal charges can be brought. The DA first meets with the family to discuss her conclusions before communicating her findings more broadly."
These actions don't always result in such extreme tardiness. Note that McCann issued her decision letter about the May 1 police shooting of William DeBose, a high-profile homicide victim whose killing prompted numerous public protests, on June 18, just six weeks later.
But long lags between killings and determinations that police were justified in their trigger-pulling are certainly commonplace. Most of the six Denver-area police shootings that were given the blessing of prosecutors in June and early July dated back four months or more — lengthy spans, but nothing compared to the one involving Fernandez.
Senate Bill 20-217, the police-reform measure, states that if district attorneys decide not to file charges against police officers in shootings, they must publicly share their rationale. No specific time frame for doing so appears in the final text, but alacrity is implied in a passage granting a 45-day delay only if public disclosure "would substantially interfere with or jeopardize an ongoing criminal investigation."
As for body-camera footage, the law emphasizes that "the local law enforcement agency or the Colorado State Patrol shall release all unedited video and audio recordings of the incident, including those from body-worn cameras, dash cameras, or otherwise collected through investigation, within twenty-one days after the local law enforcement agency or the Colorado State Patrol received the complaint of misconduct." By this standard, the DPD's release of the Fernandez footage seen here was off by more than ten months, and the final package is far from unedited.
Here's the department's presentation:
The decision letter, meanwhile, notes that last August 15, Officer Ismael Lopez and Corporal Brandon Reyes, driving in separate police cars, headed to a 7-Eleven store at 1490 Perry Street after completing their duties for the day. Upon his arrival at the store, Lopez noticed a Jeep Patriot whose license plate struck a chord with him; he believed the vehicle had been given an ATL (attempt to locate) designation after it allegedly eluded the gang unit a couple of days earlier.
Whether that was proven to be the case is unknown; the decision letter doesn't confirm that the Jeep was indeed being sought by police. But Lopez pulled up behind it anyway. A female, Fernandez, was inside at the time, while a man, Justin Lucero, was putting air in one of the tires.
Lucero was "acting nervous," according to Lopez, who decided to search him for weapons — and while he found no firearm, he did locate a syringe. That was enough from him to put Lucero into handcuffs.
At that point, Fernandez exited the vehicle, despite Lopez's orders to stay put, and when she chose to run away from the scene, he told Reyes, who'd just arrived, to give chase "based on the fact that she was fleeing and not obeying Officer Lopez's orders to wait in the car."
At that time, the DA's account continues, "without any warning, Jamie Fernandez reached into her purse and produced a black Ruger .380 semi-automatic handgun. She leveled it at the officers and Mr. Lucero and she fired one time."
We Believe Local Journalism is Critical to the Life of a City
Engaging with our readers is essential to Westword's mission. Make a financial contribution or sign up for a newsletter, and help us keep telling Denver's stories with no paywalls.
Support Our Journalism
Reyes was the first to shoot as Fernandez ran into a nearby alley, it continues, and Lopez joined in the gunplay shortly thereafter, emptying the weapon's magazine in the process. He then "took cover to reload and return fire until it appeared that Ms. Fernandez was no longer a threat to himself, fellow officer, Mr. Lucero or the community."
Evidence that Fernandez fired shots at the officers appears in abundance throughout the DA's narrative. There's much less consideration given to whether the initial stop was actually necessary, especially given the blood that was subsequently spilled. Appropriately enough, Fernandez's sixteen wounds are spelled out in bullet points.
With the new law in place, reports like this one may become a thing of the past. If they don't, legislators may find themselves wondering why they live on while so many suspects are dying.
DA McCann will hold an online community meeting to discuss the Fernandez shooting from 5:30 to 6:30 p.m. tonight on the Microsoft Teams platform. Click to join the meeting, as well as to read the Jamie Fernandez decision letter.