What we wanted to ask Durham Police Chief Jose Lopez about the latest suspect’s death

Posted on November 20, 2013 

Another suspect dies in an encounter with Durham police, and another press conference in which Police Chief Jose Lopez says nothing we didn't already know.

In today’s News and Observer and online at newsobserver.com and thedurhamnews.com, we report the death of a teenage trespassing suspect while in police custody. Officer Samuel A.M. Duncan heard a noise, suddenly jumped out of the car, leaving it to roll into a van in the parking lot. The suspect, Jesus Huerta, 17, was found dead in the backseat.

You can read the story here.

This is the third time someone has died in an an encounter with Durham police since the summer. Jose Ocampo, a suspect in a non-fatal stabbing was fatally shot by police in a July incident in which police and witnesses tell different stories (this may explain the chief’s newfound reticence, as some of the facts he initially gave the Herald-Sun later proved incorrect). In September, Derek Walker, distraught over losing a custody battle over his young son, was fatally shot when he pointed a gun at officers after an hourlong standoff at CCB Plaza in downtown.

I suppose there is symbolic value in a public expression of sympathy for the family. If that was the chief’s intention yesterday, he achieved it.

But without a chance for questions – even if Lopez had to say he didn’t know some of the answers – the press “conference’s” news value was negligible.

Here are some of the questions we would have asked if we’d had the chance:

1) Did teenage suspect Jesus Huerta die from a weapon or from the accident (seemingly unlikely given that the police car rolled into the van)?

2) Was there any indication Huerta may have been medically compromised, contributing to a possible cause of death?

3) Was Huerta searched before he was taken into custody?

4) Was Huerta handcuffed and in a seatbelt or shoulder harness?

5) if a gunshot was involved is there any damage to the police car to indicate whether a shot came from inside or outside the vehicle?

6) After three admittedly very different suspect deaths in four months does the chief think the department needs to do anything differently?

... What else would you ask?

Mark Schultz is the editor for Durham and Orange counties for The News and Observer and The Durham News. Contact him at 919-932-2003 or mschultz@newsobserver.com

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