A Mississippi police officer called ICE during a routine stop. Then an ICE agent shot an unarmed man
A police officer’s call to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in Mississippi last year left an unarmed man – initially a bystander to a traffic stop – shot and bleeding in the street, body camera footage obtained by the SPLC shows. The officer called ICE because he needed a Spanish interpreter.
The video footage shows 41-year-old Gabino Hernandez lying in a quiet residential street with blood gushing from a bullet wound on the night of July 20, 2016.
Minutes earlier, Hernandez had watched a Laurel, Mississippi, police officer question his friend and roommate, Jose Mendoza, who had been pulled over just yards from their home. The officer, David Driskell, could not understand Mendoza’s responses and needed an interpreter. He knew ICE agents were in town on unrelated business, so he called and sent his location.
The incident quickly escalated. Driskell can be heard yelling, “He’s running south, he’s running south,” in reference to Hernandez. Shortly afterward, ICE agent Phillip Causey fired a single shot that hit Hernandez – who wasn’t carrying a weapon – in the arm. The shooting itself was not captured on video.
The episode illustrates the potential hazards of involving ICE in local policing. And it should serve as a warning of the potential for more violence as the agency ramps up enforcement to meet President Trump’s mandate of deporting virtually every undocumented immigrant, even those without criminal records.
This past June, following an investigation by the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation, a local grand jury declined to bring charges against the ICE agent. But Hernandez filed a federal lawsuit in July, becoming at least the third person this year to allege ICE brutality in federal court.
Through interviews and a review of media reports and court filings, the SPLC identified at least 10 people who claim to have been shot or beaten by ICE agents since April 2015.
If an ICE agent uses force improperly, it is far from assured that anyone will be held accountable in Mississippi or elsewhere, the SPLC’s review suggests.
As is the case with police shootings, it’s difficult to determine how often ICE agents use deadly force nationwide. A report released last January by the Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general found that ICE has failed to accurately report use-of-force data to the DHS. “In the past, ICE has recognized discrepancies in its reporting systems – specifically, the need to report incidents in a timely and accurate manner,” the DHS inspector general wrote.
The report – which covers all DHS components, including ICE – concludes that the department lacks oversight of the use of force among the 80,000 law enforcement officers employed by its various agencies.
The data that is available in the report reveals that agents have often used force when there was no assault on them. ICE reported that its agents used force 95 times in fiscal year 2015; that year, there were 20 “assaults on an officer.” DHS had no data on how often ICE agents may have warned or disabled a person before using force.
The inspector general report also notes that neither DHS nor ICE has updated their use-of-force policy since 2004 and that “not all [DHS law enforcement] components have policies that emphasize the respect for human life when using force.”
With incomplete data and outdated policies, the DHS’ ability to identify and fix problems is limited. The bottom line, according to the report: “DHS has not done enough to minimize the risk of improper use of force by law enforcement officers.”
In the video, Driskell, Mendoza and Hernandez are standing in a driveway behind two houses near a high school baseball field. Driskell had pulled over Mendoza, who was following Hernandez home, for failing to come to a complete stop at a stop sign. It’s dark out, and the neighborhood is silent but for the barks of some nearby dogs. Hernandez tries to approach Driskell to help him communicate with Mendoza, but Driskell rebuffs him. Driskell appears to dial up the ICE agents a second time.
“Did you get that little pin I dropped you?” Driskell asks into the phone. “I shot y’all a text. I got one guy and he’s real mouthy” – meaning Hernandez – “and I can’t understand a word he’s saying. It’s a traffic stop that’s pulled up into the back of a house. I told him I had somebody coming that speaks Spanish.”
As a recipient of federal funding, the Laurel Police Department should have its own interpreters. The rule is meant to protect the civil rights of those who speak only limited English. Here, it may have prevented the use of force altogether.
After Driskell summons ICE, he places Mendoza in handcuffs and cites him for driving under the influence. Hernandez walks between the houses and into a nearby street. Driskell and another Laurel police officer, who had just arrived, appear to think Hernandez is running and follow him. In the street, Hernandez turns a corner to find two ICE agents who were en route to the scene seconds earlier. Someone can be heard yelling, “Get on the fucking ground” and “baje, baje,” Spanish for “get down, get down.” Agent Causey fires a shot at Hernandez just seconds later from about 60 feet away.
Some details of the shooting remain hazy. Causey claims Hernandez was reaching into his pocket when he fired his shot. Afterward, the video shows him yelling, “You shouldn’t have reached in your pocket,” as Hernandez lies in the street moaning, his blood pooling around him.
According to allegations in the court filing, Hernandez had his hands raised. The bullet hit him in the lower right arm, and he was carrying nothing but his cell phone. He would face months of painful recovery. He lost segments of his bone and suffered permanent nerve damage, according to the lawsuit.
An agent with the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation arrived on the scene almost immediately. For a month, he collected evidence and interviews, including a bedside interview with Hernandez. But after that, the case went dormant. A Mississippi grand jury entered a “no bill” on June 16.
The incident – and lack of any charges – is reminiscent of many other police shootings caught on camera that have led to widespread calls for police reform.
A spokesman for ICE did not respond to questions about whether Causey was reprimanded by the agency. Instead, he referred the SPLC to a statement from last year, which says that “ICE’s Office of Professional Responsibility investigates ICE officer-involved shootings.” At some point, ICE collected the same body-camera footage that was obtained by the SPLC through a public records request.
It is unclear what happened within the agency from there. But what is clear – as the recent inspector general’s report points out – is the lack of oversight within the DHS, ICE’s parent department, when it comes to use of force by its agents.
Hernandez now waits for Causey’s response in court. The suit is a difficult, last-ditch effort to find justice. Regardless of how it proceeds, the story will enter the court record over the coming months as a cautionary tale for local police working with ICE.