Durham police chief apologizes for remark he doesn't remember saying

jwise@newsobserver.comSeptember 6, 2013 

— Police Chief Jose Lopez apologized Friday for allegedly saying a public defender deserved to be shot but said he does not remember saying it.

“It was recently alleged that during a private meeting with some of my staff members this summer, that I made an inappropriate comment about a crime victim who is a defense attorney,” Lopez said at a news conference.

“While I do not recall making the alleged comment, as the chief of the Durham Police Department, I take full responsibility for anything I may have said that may have offended anyone or any group of people,” he said, reading from a prepared statement.

Lopez is the subject of a civil-rights discrimination complaint filed with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission by Assistant Chief Winslow Forbes. Among other things, Forbes claims that, while preparing for a July 2 press conference, Lopez said an unnamed attorney, a bystander hit by a stray bullet, deserved to get shot because he was a public defender.

City Manager Tom Bonfield said earlier this week that the attorney, David Hall, is not actually a public defender but has served as a court-appointed counsel. Nevertheless, the alleged remark prompted letters of concern to City Attorney Patrick Baker from Durham County Chief Public Defender Lawrence N. Campbell and Jennifer Harjo, president of the N.C. Public Defender Association.

“I believe someone may have made (the remark),” Lopez said after reading his statement. “I cannot definitively say that it wasn’t me, and, because I cannot ... I will take responsibility for it.

“The statement, if it was made, I am certain it was not made intentionally and it was not done with malice.”

Bonfield said his office and the City Attorney’s office questioned all those who were at the July 2 meeting.

“None of those recollections were thoroughly consistent with the allegations,” Bonfield said. He said he still has full faith and confidence in Lopez as Durham’s police chief and that Lopez’s statement is “closure” as far as the alleged remark is concerned.

On Wednesday, the Fraternal Order of Police’s Durham County chapter issued a letter of support for Lopez.

“We firmly object to any attempts or allegations that would defame the character of Chief Lopez,” the letter stated. “Such allegations serve as a disservice and a stain to the Department and all citizens of Durham.”

The EEOC complaint remains under review, Bonfield said, as does the fatal shooting of stabbing suspect Jose Ocampo by Officer R.S. Mbuthia on July 27. Accounts of the event from eye witnesses conflict with the official police version of events.

“Whatever comes up, we’ll investigate it, review it, be transparent about it,” Bonfield said.

Forbes’ complaint to the EEOC primarily dealt with his claim he was passed over for promotion in retaliation for complaints about racially offensive remarks Lopez had made. Before the EEOC filing, the city hired an independent consultant to look into Forbes’ allegations. The consultant “was unable to either substantiate or determine the allegations,” City Attorney Patrick Baker wrote in a letter to Harjo.

Lopez said he “would not be able to comment on the complaint,” but added, “What I can honestly say is, I have not discriminated against anyone in this organization. Being a man of color, it’s not something that I would be doing.”

Wise: 919-641-5895

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