A Durham teenager's death while in police custody demands answers

November 20, 2013 

Then there were three. That’s how many cases the State Bureau of Investigation is looking into regarding the deaths of people who had encounters with the Durham police this year. The latest happened early Tuesday when an officer drove into the parking lot at police headquarters and a teenager he had intended to charge with trespassing was found dead in the backseat.

Jesus Huerta was the young man’s name. The specifics of what happened are as yet unknown, and the public, as usual, isn’t likely to find out more about this case from Durham Police Chief Jose Lopez, who has never been very good at explaining the actions of his department. The chief also hasn’t shown that he understands his obligation to the people for whom he works to step out front on controversial or mysterious cases.

In this case, that’s particularly disturbing, since Huerta, who was 17 and had had only minor interactions with police with no criminal convictions, was so young when this happened. What in the world could explain this incident?

But from Lopez, there was virtually nothing. In addition to this incident and the previous ones under the SBI ‘scope, the Durham department has been accused of racial profiling, and that’s being looked at in addition to everything else.

Lopez could help himself and his department if he would respond to incidents such as this with the proper alarm and the appropriate candor. The longer a mystery goes unsolved, the more rumors are given free rein in the community. That in itself can stir tensions and lead to trouble.

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