DURHAM — Police remain silent about how a 17-year-old boy died in the back seat of a Durham police car early Tuesday morning, apparently of a gunshot wound.
But it’s clear that if police followed their own procedures, Jesus Huerta wouldn’t have had access to a gun in the car.
According to a general order issued by the Durham Police Department in 2005, anyone taken into custody must be searched for weapons or contraband before they are placed into a police car. The arresting officer is also required to handcuff suspects “behind the back and the handcuffs will be double-locked,” according to the order.
Huerta, a 10th-grader at Riverside High School, was being charged with second-degree trespassing just before 3 a.m. Tuesday. He was in the back seat of a patrol car driven by Officer Samuel A.M. Duncan in the parking lot at police headquarters on East Chapel Hill Street when he died, Durham Police Chief Jose Lopez said Tuesday.
Duncan heard a loud noise from the back seat and jumped from the car, Lopez said. An out-of-breath police officer radioed emergency dispatchers to report that shots had been fired in the parking lot and asked for medical assistance for a gunshot wound, “approximately 18-year-old male, not breathing,” according to the recording released by the Police Department.
Lopez said during a news conference Tuesday morning that police didn’t know how Huerta died but said it did not appear that Duncan or any other Durham police officer fired a weapon. Lopez declined to answer any questions because the case had been turned over to the State Bureau of Investigation, standard procedure after a police-involved shooting.
Except for the recordings, police have not released any information about Huerta’s death.
Supporters of Huerta and his family plan to protest the shooting with a “march for justice” Friday night in downtown Durham’s CCB Plaza. A Facebook post Thursday announcing the planned protest described Lopez’s silence as “an insult” that called into question the Police Department’s treatment of the city’s Hispanic residents.
Huerta’s family members say he did not own a handgun. Jesus Huerta’s older brother, Raziel Huerta, wondered whether Duncan searched him after taking him into custody, or whether his younger brother found a weapon already in the car.
The 2005 general order requires officers to search their patrol cars before and after transporting prisoners and at the beginning and end of their work shifts.
Police arrested Huerta after his mother, Sylvia Fernandez, asked one of her daughters to call 911 when her son left the family’s apartment on Washington Street about 2 a.m. The 911 caller told an emergency dispatcher that her mother had caught her brother “using drugs” before he stormed out of the home. Sylvia Fernandez worried about him being out and wanted police to pick him up for his own safety, the family said later.
Police have not said where they arrested Huerta or why. Huerta’s siblings say the officer picked Huerta up about two blocks from home.
Second-degree trespassing is the lowest level misdemeanor, punishable with a maximum fine of $200, community service and one to 10 days in jail, according to state statutes.
The Durham Police Department has placed Duncan on administrative leave with pay pending the SBI’s investigation, which is standard procedure, Lopez said. He said the department’s homicide unit and its professional standards division also are investigating.
The Huerta family has established a memorial fund for Jesus Huerta’s burial expenses. Those wishing to contribute can do so at any Wells Fargo bank branch.