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Young man killed by Federal Way police tried to follow orders, lawsuit says

A 21-year-old killed by Federal Way police was experiencing a mental health crisis and trying to comply with police when he was killed, a new federal lawsuit says.

Federal Way police shot and killed Ricardo Hernandez with assault rifles in the mobile home park where he lived with his family on October 8, 2016. After the shooting, Federal Way police described the incident as “a domestic violence situation between two adult brothers.”

Hernandez had knives and threatened his family, police said. Other family members had locked themselves in a separate room and tried to escape out a window.

“The assailant made a statement about wanting to die and then he moved toward the officers,” said a police press release the day of Hernandez’s death.

But the lawsuit, filed last week by civil rights attorney James Bible, characterizes the incident differently. Hernandez, the suit claims, was not a danger to officers when he was shot six times and killed.

Officers arrived on the scene in response to a call from Hernandez’s mother, Margarita Hernandez, during which family members expressed concern that her son was experiencing a mental health crisis and had knives, the lawsuit says.

After officers helped family members out the window, Federal Way police surrounded the home. One officer urged Hernandez to come outside. According to the lawsuit, Hernandez’s uncle asked police if he could try to speak with his nephew, but they wouldn’t let him. The suit says police did not have “less lethal” weapons that fired rubber bullets and did not contact mental health professionals or negotiators to communicate with Hernandez.

During an inquest — or fact-finding mission — after Hernandez’s death, officers testified before a King County jury that Hernandez stood on the back porch with knives in his hand. They said they instructed Hernandez to put the knives down, and that Hernandez lunged at them, at which point officers Tanner Pau and Blake Losvar fired at him.

The inquest jury sided with police, concluding that Hernandez had “failed to drop the knives.” The jury also said that Hernandez had threatened his family, but that the family had advised police of Hernandez’s mental state.

The Hernandez family’s lawsuit, however, claims that Hernandez was still mostly inside his home when officers shot him, and that he was trying to put the knives down on the porch as instructed. The suit also says that officers were 23 feet away from Hernandez when they shot him. (The King County inquest jury also concluded that officers were more than 15 feet away when they opened fire with AR-15s.)

Laura Torres, Hernandez’s cousin, said her cousin had struggled with depression and anxiety. She said she had helped him build his resume, and he recently got a new job at the local Goodwill outlet as a result. Torres thought her cousin had been doing better, but he had recently changed his medications and wasn’t sleeping, she said.

Torres told KUOW that two years after the shooting, the family is seeking closure and justice.

“You call 911 for help,” Torres said. “[Now] I’m scared of cops. My mom is scared. She is terrified. It’s not fair that they get to continue with their lives like nothing happened when they decided to shoot someone who needed help.”

Torres said she believed her cousin’s death would have had a different outcome if he had been white and hadn’t lived in a trailer park.

“If they had showed up to an Issaquah neighborhood with a white kid, they would have brought in negotiators,” Torres said. “Why didn't they negotiate?”

Bible, the attorney for the family, said Hernandez’s shooting should have never happened. “I have deep concerns about the way people are treated in Federal Way,” he said.

When contacted by KUOW, a spokesperson for the city of Federal Way responded with a statement reiterating some of the inquest jury’s findings, including that officers had reason to believe that Hernandez “posed an imminent threat of death or serious bodily injury” to them and others when they opened fire.

“The city sympathizes with the loss felt by this family, but it denies any wrongdoing by its officers and will defend this lawsuit,” the statement read.

Tom Miller, an attorney for the city and officers Tanner Pau and Blake Losvar, declined to comment. 

There have been three police-involved shootings in Federal Way in the last two years.

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