SALT LAKE CITY — Lilian Esther Newey and her mother, who is also named Lilian, say public outrage over recent police shootings prompted them to speak out about how their family chose to approach their own ordeal.
Their brother and son, Edgar Hernandez, was killed by Salt Lake City police in 2001. He was 18 years old.
Refrain from judgement, find forgiveness
Deeply concerned about a rush to judgement and anger toward law enforcement over officer-involved shootings, Newey recently shared her feelings and experiences on her Facebook page.
"While the pain of losing your loved one is unbearable, stop, reflect, pray, withhold judgement," she wrote. "First remember while the media tries to keep us informed, not all the facts are in. My mother learned from the media that her son was dead."
Last week, Newey spoke for the first time to the officer who shot her brother. She's talked to all three officers involved in the incident and said she feels forgiveness.
Building trust, reassurance after officer-involved shootings
by Peter Samore
Before reaching out to them, Lilian Newey told herself that she needed a new mindset, free of anger.
"For years, I prayed that I wanted to know exactly what had happened," she said.
But when she found the police officers involved in her brother's fatal shooting, Newey said she didn't need all of the answers. They wouldn't bring Edgar Hernandez back.
The Salt Lake City Police Department won't let those officers talk on-record while investigating another officer involved shooting. But Newey found the first officer patrolling the streets.
"His face looked like it had aged 20 years. His hair had gone grey," she said. "I walked up to him and said, 'I'm Edgar Hernandez's sister.' He looked at me and said, 'I know.'"
That officer apologized for that fateful 2001 evening. She found the second officer in a school.
"He says, 'I am now working with the youth because I cannot see one more person die the way your brother did.'"
Newey says the third works in impound, too grief-stricken for any other duty after a split-second, life-altering decision.
That's a feeling Mark Zelig, Ph.D., understands all too well.
"It's going to take them a-third of a second, on average, for their brain to make the decision to pull the trigger," he said.
Zelig has a practice in Cottonwood Heights. He retired as a lieutenant from Salt Lake City 13 years ago. He specializes in counselling police, whom he calls "reactors" in dangerous situations.
"They focus on the central events, to the exclusion of the peripheral events that may turn out to be important," Zelig said.
Zelig even sees officers' families, and urges access to them.
"They actually receive more flak, or are more frightened or traumatized than the officer involved in the event," he said. After all, they almost lost a spouse, a parent, a sibling.
And Zelig counsels on the concept of "suicide by cop", where the distraught seek to have police end their lives.
"It's just unfortunate that they can't find a more appropriate and more effective therapeutic modality," he said.
In counselling, Zelig tells his police clients that their experiences are normal, and that their sessions won't be used against them.
Newey believes Hernandez chose that ending and the family accepts that this would have been inevitable.
"They didn't put a badge on that day and say, 'Let's go kill somebody.' They put on that badge that day because they wanted to protect," she said.
Newey added that she is grateful the officers made it home to their families that fateful day and is certain her brother would be upset at himself to know he put officers and his own family in a situation they must cope with for the rest of their lives.
The shooting and the aftermath
The incident happened May 5, 2001. Newey said she reported her brother to authorities because he'd assaulted her husband. Police responded and eventually located Hernandez at an apartment complex in Salt Lake City. A confrontation ensued, and Hernandez got an officer's gun and pointed it back at police. One of the officers fired and killed Hernandez.
After the shooting, the family was ambushed by media looking for comment, the community began to allege racial profiling, the public demanded the officers' badges, and lawyers were offering to sue on the family's behalf.
That's when Hernandez's mother told her children to lock the door, stop answering the phone and turn off the television. With the world shut out, they began to work together to search for peace.
"Unfortunately, there are not many answers in the beginning. There is a process, and sometimes we are urged to get those answers immediately," said Lilian Hernandez-Lobos, Hernandez's mother.
The family sought to understand the officers' actions and accepted that the investigation would take time. Through it all, they eventually discovered that initially media reported that police shot Hernandez execution-style while he was fully handcuffed, which was inaccurate.
"Don't be a judge. You have to go to a place of kindness and forgiveness, lose yourself in service, lose yourself in something positive," Newey said.
Today, the family continues to pray that communities support more after-school programs and opportunities for troubled youth.
Hernandez himself had a troubled past.
"He was rebellious at home, he was rebellious at school and then after that he started with drugs," his mother said.
At one point, Hernandez had found himself before a judge asking for a chance and instead got jail time.
A night in jail cost him his new job.
The family believes there was a part of Hernandez that wanted to die, and the officers who responded that day were forced into a split-second and heart-wrenching choice.
"They were faced with a very tough decision of 'Either we go home and be with our family and be safe or we die,' " Newey said.