FBI should investigate complaints about Durham police

December 11, 2013 

Police are supposed to solve mysteries, not create them. But the Durham Police Department has done the latter in the case of a 17-year-old who died in police custody.

Durham Police Chief Jose L. Lopez said at a news conference Wednesday that Jesus Huerta shot himself in the head after being arrested and placed in a police cruiser. The teenager had been searched and was handcuffed behind his back. Lopez said the gun was not the arresting officer’s weapon. How the gun got in the cruiser is still being investigated.

Huerta died on Nov. 19 after being picked up in the early morning hours after he apparently left his home following a family dispute. He was taken into custody on an outstanding second-degree trespassing charge and driven in a police cruiser to police headquarters where the shooting occurred.

Huerta’s family has presented the FBI with a petition with more than 18,000 signatures seeking a federal investigation into the “patterns and practices” of the Durham Police Department. It’s a request justified by the Huerta’s death and other cases involving a department that has had problems being transparent and accountable to the public.

The Huerta case follows two other cases this year in which suspects died during encounters with police. The situation in Durham goes beyond procedural and case-related issues being reviewed by the SBI. It is now a matter of police patterns and civil rights. The FBI should answer the Huerta family’s petition by agreeing to investigate.

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