SAN DIEGO – The mother of a 24-year-old man who died after being pinned by two trolley security officers – one of whom kneeled on his neck for roughly six minutes – has filed a wrongful death lawsuit against two San Diego police officers who were summoned as backup.
The lawsuit, filed in San Diego federal court Friday, comes about six months after the mother reached a $5.5 million settlement with Metropolitan Transit Authority and its security contractor, Allied Universal, in the death of her son, Angel Zapata Hernandez.
The complaint accuses the police officers, Jordan Belchamber and Christino Quinonez, of failing to immediately intervene upon seeing Zapata Hernandez being restrained – handcuffed, nonresistant and facedown – on the pavement. Quinonez is accused of directing the security officers to continue their restraint, an order that contributed to Zapata Hernandez’s asphyxia and ultimate death, the lawsuit states.
A spokesperson for the San Diego Police Department said he could not comment on pending litigation, and a spokesperson for the city attorney’s office said attorneys would respond to the allegations in court.
The death, on Oct. 15, 2019, came six months before George Floyd was similarly killed by a police officer in Minnesota. However, the details surrounding Zapata Hernandez’s death were not publicly disclosed until a year and a half later, when the settlement was announced in April 2021.
Zapata Hernandez had been diagnosed with schizophrenia in 2017 and had battled drug addiction. But, his family said during a previous news conference, he was treating his mental condition with medication and in recovery for substance abuse. His toxicology report showed marijuana but no illegal drugs.
He had told his mother, Claudia Hernandez, that he was going to go to a store near their Linda Vista home on the day of his death.
Zapata Hernandez was first contacted by an MTS code compliance inspector after being spotted wandering along the railroad tracks north of the Santa Fe Depot. He ran away when an Allied Universal security guard arrived, but both officers chased after him and caught him.
The MTS officers were concerned he was under the influence of drugs and might harm himself, according to the district attorney’s office, which reviewed the incident.
The officers got Zapata Hernandez on the ground on his stomach, according to body-worn camera footage released by authorities. The security guard put his knee on Zapata Hernandez’s back while the MTS officer put his knee on Zapata Hernandez’s neck.
Zapata Hernandez yelled and appeared to struggle at first but grew quiet and motionless.
The San Diego police officers arrived minutes into the restraint, and Quinonez directed the trolley officers to maintain their holds, according to the lawsuit and video footage.
When it became apparent that Zapata Hernandez was not breathing, the officers rolled him over and called for medics.
The lawsuit claims Belchamber, despite his training and previous employment as an emergency medical technician, failed to give Zapata Hernandez CPR in a timely manner.
Zapata Hernandez was pronounced dead at a hospital. The medical examiner’s office declared the cause of death to be cardiopulmonary arrest while he was held prone on the ground, and also said an underlying heart condition played a role.
The district attorney’s office declined to charge the officers involved following an investigation.
“Unlike MTS Code Compliance officers and security guards, the SDPD officers are peace officers, who are better trained, better paid, and better equipped than the MTS personnel,” the lawsuit states.
“Both defendants had an affirmative legal duty to prevent the use of excessive and deadly force. Instead of intervening, they ordered the continued imposition of excessive force,” the suit adds.