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DENVER (AP) — Prosecutors on Tuesday promised a thorough investigation and asked angry protesters for patience after police shot and killed a 17-year-old girl who authorities said struck an officer with a stolen car.
The request came after about 20 people rallied outside District Attorney Mitch Morrissey's office and called for a special prosecutor to investigate the Monday death of Jessica Hernandez.
The shooting occurred amid a national debate about police use of force fueled by racially charged episodes in Ferguson, Missouri, and New York City.
Denver police say two officers opened fire after Hernandez struck one of them with the vehicle, but a passenger who was in the car at the time of the shooting disputed that account late Tuesday. The witness, speaking to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because of safety concerns, said Hernandez hit the officer only after she was shot because she was unconscious and lost control of the car.
The shooting was the fourth time in seven months that a Denver police officer fired into a moving vehicle after perceiving it as a threat, and the city's independent police monitor now says he will investigate the department's policies and practices related to shooting at moving vehicles, which he said poses unique safety risks.
Morrissey wasn't there during the tense confrontation at his office, where chief deputy district attorneys Doug Jackson and Lamar Sims spoke over shouts and obscenities from some of the protesters.
Jackson said he could not discuss the case but assured the group that the findings of his office's investigation will be made public when it's finished. "You can decide whether we made the right decision or not," Jackson said.
The girl's cousin, Jose Castaneda, said he was frustrated and didn't want to wait months to find out what happened. "Let me ask you one question, how would you feel if it was your kid?" he yelled before storming away.
Protesters said they don't trust Morrissey's office to handle the case because the last time a Denver police officer faced charges in a shooting was 1992.
"We are sick and tired of these kinds of things happening, and there seems to be no true objective investigation," said the Rev. Patrick Demmer of the Greater Metro Denver Ministerial Alliance.
Police released few details about the shooting in a middle-class, residential neighborhood of Denver. They said Hernandez was one of five people in the stolen car and she drove into a police officer.
The four other people in the car weren't injured by the gunfire. All were questioned as part of the investigation, but none has been charged.
The shooting happened early Monday after an officer was called to check on a suspicious vehicle. A colleague arrived after the officer determined the car had been reported stolen, Police Chief Robert White said.
Police said in a statement that the two officers then "approached the vehicle on foot when the driver drove the car into one of the officers."
Both officers then opened fire, police said. One was treated and released from a hospital for a leg injury. Department spokesman Sonny Jackson wouldn't elaborate on the officer's injury or comment further about the case.
The medical examiner said Hernandez was shot multiple times but did not release further details.
The car's passenger said police had surrounded the car in the alley, and Hernandez was trying to flee, attempting to dive around one of the squad cars.
The officers came up to the car from behind and fired four times into the driver's side window, narrowly missing others inside, the passenger said.
Hernandez wrecked the car into a fence after she was shot, according to the witness. Police said the officer suffered a leg injury for which he was treated at a hospital and released.
Officers with their guns drawn then pulled people out of the car, including Hernandez, who they handcuffed and searched.
The passenger was unaware the vehicle was stolen and provided only vague details about what the group of teenagers was doing earlier in the night.
Bobbie Diaz, the mother of a 16-year-old girl in the car, criticized the way police handled Hernandez after the shooting, saying officers pulled her from the car and handcuffed her even after she was motionless.
Officers typically handcuff suspects as a safety precaution after they are injured, Sonny Jackson said.
Diaz said she was lying in bed when she heard four gunshots followed by an officer yelling, "Freeze! Get out of the car! Get down!"
Diaz said she came outside to see officers with their guns drawn pulling people out of the car, including Hernandez.
"She seemed like she was not responding, not moving," Diaz said. "They just yanked her out and handcuffed her."
Meanwhile, Diaz said, she heard another person screaming, "She's dead! She's dead!"
A shrine of red and white flowers and candles, and a white teddy bear marked the shooting scene on Tuesday.
Magaly Castaneda, 17, a friend of Hernandez, visited the site and said she doubted Hernandez would have intentionally hit an officer.
"She didn't even get time to think that she was going to get shot," Castaneda said.
She had known Hernandez since both were middle school students doing each other's hair and makeup. Castaneda said Hernandez would bring home friends who had nowhere else to go, sometimes exasperating her mother.
"She always had a heart. She always cared about everyone," Castaneda said.
By law, police are allowed to use force to stop and overcome the resistance of another person. They can use it to match the force and overcome it.
Both officers involved in the shooting have been placed on routine administrative leave pending the investigation.
Associated Press writer Donna Bryson contributed to this report.
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