Tensions mount after Durham teen's death in police custody

aspecht@newsobserver.com mschultz@newsobserver.comNovember 23, 2013 

  • The Huerta case so far

    Jesus 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.

    Duncan said he heard a loud noise from the back seat and jumped from the car, according to Durham police chief Jose Lopez. 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 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.”

    Staff writer Thomasi McDonald

— Tensions between police and some members of the community continue to mount in the wake of a string of deaths involving officers this year.

Last week’s unexplained death of a teenager by an apparent gunshot wound while sitting in a patrol car sparked a march through downtown to police headquarters that turned violent Friday night.

On Saturday, police attributed the violence to a few “outside agitators,” while the department was both criticized and praised for how it responded to the conflict.

On Tuesday, 17-year-old Jesus Huerta died while sitting in Officer Samuel Duncan’s patrol car. Police Chief Jose Lopez said it didn’t appear that Duncan fired his weapon. But Lopez said he would not elaborate on how Huerta, who was under arrest for second-degree trespassing, died until the State Bureau of Investigation completes its work.

In response, more than 150 people gathered Friday night in downtown Durham to remember Huerta and express frustration over the lack of information provided. But as the group reached police headquarters, protesters wearing black hooded sweatshirts, ski masks and bandanas joined the march and began throwing firecrackers at police officers.

The windshield of a Durham patrol car was broken, and three police station windows were cracked after someone “hit them with a hammer of some kind,” Durham City Manager Thomas Bonfield said Saturday. Police issued a statement Saturday saying the demonstration started out peacefully, but became unruly when joined by several people intent on causing trouble.

Shahqeel Alexander McCrimmon, 19, of Durham was arrested and charged with failure to disperse on command, causing a public disturbance, and holding a demonstration while wearing a mask or hood. A 14-year-old boy was also arrested and charged with injury to property.

McCrimmon was released from jail after posting $1,500 bail. The 14-year-old was released to the custody of his parents.

Police are searching for others who damaged police property, Bonfield said.

One witness said police went after some people who were not necessarily destroying anything.

“They just grabbed people out of the street,” said Elena Everett, director of Youth Organizing Institute, a nonprofit that trains and supports Triangle high school students.

“I saw some police officers who were pretty hyped on adrenaline, literally dodge into the crowd and try to pull them out,” she said. “They had little batons. They were pulling out Tasers.”

No one was reported injured, prompting Durham City Councilman Don Moffitt to commend police for showing “what appears to be a significant amount of restraint in a volatile situation.”

Huerta is the third suspect to die this year while Durham police were attempting to take him into custody.

• 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.

• On Sept. 17, Derek Deandre Walker, 26, was fatally shot by Cpl. R.C. Swartz when Walker pointed a gun at officers after an hourlong 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, the police chief, acknowledged Friday that the three cases have put the department’s credibility at stake.

Bonfield said he has “full confidence in what (police) are doing.”

“That doesn't mean they're perfect,” he said. “As it relates to these matters, I need to have some other information than what I have so far for that (confidence) to be changed."

Durham City Councilman Eugene Brown, meanwhile, cast doubt on the direction of the police department.

“It almost appears we’re looking at a pattern here, and it’s very sad,” he said.

“It’s tragic what happened,” Brown continued. “If (Huerta) accidentally or intentionally shot himself, what does that mean? He wasn’t searched properly. Which is pretty damn basic.”

Specht: 919-460-2608; Twitter: @AndySpecht

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