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Cop Empties Clip On Suburban Street After Hearing Acorn Strike His Car

An image from Jesse Hernandez's body cam footage
Body-cam footage.

There are so many problems with modern American policing that you never really expect one incident to capture almost all of them. And yet here they all are—unaccountable violence, crippling fear, wrongheadedness, deception, incompetence that is by turns funny and sickening—popping up neatly in one story from Fort Walton Beach, Fla., to reveal what police work is really all about.

On the morning of Nov. 12, 2023, two officers from the Okaloosa County Sheriff's Office responded to a call in a residential neighborhood. A woman named Celestiana Lopez had called 911 and said that her boyfriend, Marquis Jackson, was refusing to return her car after borrowing it, and had also been sending her threatening text messages. Four officers, including Sergeant Beth Roberts and Deputy Jesse Hernandez, responded to the call. While Roberts was speaking with Lopez, Jackson arrived on at the scene on foot. Hernandez kept Jackson away from Lopez and patted him down. A few minutes later, Roberts instructed the other officers to detain Jackson, so he was handcuffed, given a more thorough pat down, and put in the back seat of Hernandez's car. The two other responding officers left to look for Lopez's vehicle, and after a few minutes Hernandez left Roberts in order to perform yet another personal search of Jackson. What happened next was captured on Hernandez's body camera:

As Hernandez approaches his car's door, an acorn falls from a nearby tree and lands on the roof of the car. Hernandez immediately screams, "Shots fired!" several times, executes a double roll into the street, draws his gun, rises to one knee and fires several shots into the back of the car, falls onto his side and yells, "I'm hit!" while emptying the rest of his clip into the car, and then stumbles across the street to find cover. Roberts, who also fired shots into the police car, asks Hernandez if he is OK. "I'm good. I feel weird, but I'm good," he says. Jackson was not struck by any of the bullets.

The acorn detail was later confirmed by an internal affairs investigation that produced a 44-page report on the incident. Investigators went through the footage from Hernandez's body camera frame by frame, and discovered the acorn striking the roof of his car at the precise moment that he began screaming as if he'd been shot and rolling into the street. The report includes an interview transcript that captures the precise moment Hernandez had this explained to him:

Investigator Hogan showed Deputy Hernandez still photos taken from his BWC video of the OIS. He showed the frames where the acorn first comes into frame and the subsequent frames where the acorn can be seen bouncing off the roof of his patrol vehicle.

Deputy Hernandez asked, “Acorn?” Investigator Hogan answered, “Acorn.”

Investigator Henderson asked Deputy Hernandez if he thought it was possible that the noise he heard, which he had interpreted as a gunshot from a suppressed firearm, was actually the noise of the acorn striking the roof of his patrol vehicle next to him. Deputy Hernandez answered, “I'm not gonna say no, because I mean that's, but what I, [10 second pause in speaking] what I heard [3 second pause in speaking] sounded almost like [12 second pause in speaking] what I heard sounded what I think would be louder than an acorn hitting the roof of the car, but there's obviously an acorn hitting the roof of the car.”

Investigator Hogan asked Deputy Hernandez if in general he was familiar with the sound of acorns striking vehicles. Deputy Hernandez said he was.

Investigator Hogan then asked if that sound could have been the sound he heard that led him to believe Mr. Jackson had shot him. Deputy Hernandez said, “It could be. [7 second pause in speaking] I don't think so, but it could be.”

Deputy Hernandez’s representative, Mr. John Whitaker, said he and Deputy
Hernandez had heard a sound on his BWC video. He asked Deputy Hernandez if he wanted to watch the video to see if the acorn striking the roof matched in time the sound they had heard and if they matched, would it change his opinion of what he thought the sound was. Deputy Hernandez answered, “Yeah, I mean I, I'm, I'm a believer in what I see, so yes, this is, [others speaking] without knowing that, but I can tell you right, I can tell you right now, I can tell you right now from [others speaking] where that hand is. This is, this is probably about that time that we're hearing it.”

Deputy Hernandez was offered the opportunity to watch his BWC video to see the sound match the acorn hitting the roof, and he declined.

The entire report is as fascinating as it is maddening. At some moments the investigators seem to be having trouble concealing their disdain for Hernandez and Roberts; at one point one of them asks Hernandez why he performed a double roll into the street. (The response: “Uh, the rolling. Um, kind of reaction to what's going on and me realizing like my legs are not working the way I need them to work right now, but I can, I can roll to that vehicle over there. So, that's kind of where I was trying to get to.”) And then there are moments that reiterate just how close every cop seems to be to tipping over into a murderous panic. Hernandez repeatedly told the investigators that he felt something hit his torso when the acorn landed on the car's roof, and that his legs immediately went numb. Roberts emphasized the "terror" that she heard in her partner's voice, and how his stumbling into the street gave her the impression that he was dying. Hernandez, like all of those cops who have been filmed losing control of their limbs at the mere site of a white powder, seems to have had something like a panic attack—in response to the sound of an acorn striking a vehicle—and his response to that sensation was to imagine he'd been shot, throw himself on the ground, and spray bullets at a man who was handcuffed in the back of his car.

The more sickening parts of the report have to do with the excuse Roberts and Hernandez concocted for themselves. Here you can sense the echoes of a panicked, post-shooting confabulation. Roberts told the investigators that she thought she saw a silencer in one of the photos that Jackson had texted to Lopez, and that Lopez had said that Jackson was known to carry a gun. Roberts had mentioned this photo to Hernandez before he started walking toward the car. In the reality Roberts and Hernandez tried to construct while speaking to investigators, the existence of this photo gave Hernandez reason to believe that the sound of an acorn hitting the top of his car was the sound of a silenced weapon being fired at him from inside the car by a man who was handcuffed and had already been searched twice.

What's striking is how easily Roberts and Hernandez were able to continue living in that reality even as they spoke to investigators. “I've been advised by, um, my attorney here, I, you know, I know they didn't recover a weapon, or anything like that on the scene, but, um, I'm confident with what I just told you is what, what happened,” said Hernandez.

When asked to explain her decision to fire into the police car, Roberts responded from within that false reality, unable to spare even one qualifier: “The threat was somebody had shot him. We had an armed subject in the back of the vehicle. Jesse was shot. I'm watching him, you know, fumble on the roadway. How do I, how do I give him more time? How do I, how do I draw the attention to me? How do I, how do I save him?”

It takes a cascade of personal and systemic failures to make an incident like this possible. A woman called the police because she wanted help finding her car, and she ended up watching two cops try and fail to murder her boyfriend in broad daylight while he was restrained in the back of a police car. That can only happen in a country where calling the cops is the only option a victim has in that scenario, and where those cops are armed, conditioned to believe that they are under constant siege, and told that the only way to survive is to shoot first.

The internal affairs investigation determined that Hernandez was guilty of using excessive force. He resigned from the force last December. Roberts was cleared of any wrongdoing.

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