Durham police chief says he must remain silent concerning teen's death

tmcdonald@newsobserver.comNovember 22, 2013 

— Police Chief Jose Lopez says he will explain fully how a teenager died in the back seat of a patrol car earlier this week but only after the State Bureau of Investigation has finished investigating the case.

Lopez broke three days of silence on the death of Jesus Huerta with a statement Friday morning asking for the public’s patience. Huerta’s death of an apparent gunshot wound early Tuesday morning was the third involving a Durham police officer this year.

“As the Durham Police Chief, I fully understand my responsibility to be transparent on controversial issues and cases, particularly in light of recent officer involved shootings,” Lopez said. “Not only have three lives been lost in the last few months, the credibility of the Police Department is at stake, which is something we take very seriously.”

Huerta, a 10th-grader at Riverside High School, was being charged with second-degree trespassing just before 3 a.m. Tuesday and was in the back seat of a patrol car driven by Officer Samuel A.M. Duncan in the parking lot at police headquarters when he died, 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.

In his statement, Lopez said his department asked the SBI to handle the cases “to ensure independent and impartial investigations.” He said he understands the public’s concerns about the lack of information.

“We realize that during the investigation process, transparency is indeed essential to maintaining your trust,” he said. “However, I also am obligated not to compromise the investigation by speaking prematurely before the investigation is complete. That would be a disservice to the SBI, the District Attorney’s Office and, most importantly the victims, the families, and to you, the community.”

The chief’s comments come a day after Durham City Councilman Don Moffitt expressed frustration with the lack of information about recent deaths of residents in encounters with police.

“Until the investigations are complete we are all on hold. ... as a leader of this city, I am frustrated,” said Moffitt, an appointed council member recently elected to his first full term. “Durham needs information and transparency … It’s time to move forward.”

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.

Lopez has also not said where Huerta was arrested or why, other than to say he was being charged with second-degree trespassing. Second-degree trespassing is a Class 3 misdemeanor, the lowest level misdemeanor, punishable by a maximum $200 fine, community punishment and one to 10 days in jail, according to state statutes.

Duncan could have issued a citation to Huerta instead of taking him to police headquarters to obtain an arrest warrant, according to police department policy. The policy states that “officers are encouraged” to use alternatives to arrest for misdemeanors “where there is no danger to persons or property and where the suspect has an identifiable address within a reasonable distance.”

Huerta’s family said he was two blocks from home when police picked him up. His mother, Sylvia Fernandez, had asked one of her daughters to dial 911 after her son left their apartment on Washington Street without her permission about 2 a.m.

The SBI is investigating two other deaths involving Durham police officers.

• On July 27, Jose Adan Cruz Ocampo, 33, was fatally shot by officer R.S. Mbuthia after Mbuthia and other officers told him to drop a kitchen knife he held. Witnesses later said Ocampo was holding the knife out, handle first, to an officer when he was shot four times.

Ocampo was a suspect in a stabbing earlier that day. The stabbing was not fatal.

• On Sept. 17, Derek Deandre Walker, 26, was fatally shot by Cpl. R.C. Swartz when Walker pointed a gun at officers after an hour-long standoff at CCB Plaza in downtown. During the standoff, hostage negotiators had talked to Walker, who was distraught over losing a custody battle over his young son.

Lopez said he will discuss all three cases when the SBI completes its investigations, but he said that can take months.

“Like you, I eagerly await the full review of these investigations,” he said. “As we wait, please know that thoughts and prayers are with the families of the victims, as well as the officers involved and their families. I appreciate your patience, and can assure you that once these investigations are completed, I will make a full disclosure to the public about each case.”

Staff writer Jim Wise contributed to this report.

McDonald: 919-829-4533

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