DURHAM — Police Chief Jose L. Lopez is scheduled to give his quarterly crime report to the City Council Monday night. Lopez hasn’t let on what he’s going to say, but over the past few years he’s usually had good news. FBI statistics show crime on a downward trend in Durham, and a visitors’ bureau poll found most citizens – white, black and Hispanic – feel safe in the community.
Nevertheless, Lopez leads a police department under fire. For more than a year, charges of police violence, racism and coverups have mounted with few definitive answers and little resolution. That three pending cases are in the hands of the State Bureau of Investigation hasn’t helped resolve the controversy.
The latest incident was the Nov. 19 death of 17-year-old Jesus Huerta while he was in custody, sitting handcuffed in the back seat of a police car. Last week, Lopez said he died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound, an explanation that only left more questions unanswered.
In particular, how could Huerta, with his hands cuffed behind his back, manage to shoot himself?
“You’d be surprised what an individual handcuffed behind their back can do,” Lopez said. “I’ve had in my career, in my experience, I’ve had individuals who lit up cigarettes and smoked them while handcuffed from behind.”
How Huerta got a firearm, whose gun it was, whether the fatal shot was intentional or an accident – all remain under investigation, both by the police and the State Bureau of Investigation.
The SBI was already investigating two other Durham cases of officer-involved deaths within six months. On July 27, Jose Adan Cruz Ocampo, 33, on July 27, and Derek Deandre Walker, 26, Sept. 17. Ocampo was a suspect in a non-fatal stabbing; Walker was fatally shot after pointing his gun at police in a downtown standoff.
Results of those investigations have yet to be made public.
“Until the investigations are complete we are all on hold,” City Councilman Don Moffitt said in late November. “The families of the deceased ... are on hold, the officers involved are on hold, the community is on hold. As a leader of this city, I am frustrated.”
The current string of controversies goes back to October 2012, when Stephanie Nickerson was arrested for assaulting an officer, but claimed the officer actually assaulted her. Eventually, the officer resigned and Nickerson’s charges were dismissed, but by then Carlos Riley Jr. had been arrested for shooting an officer during a traffic stop.
Riley’s supporters claim the officer accidentally shot himself, and the stop was an unwarranted case of racial profiling. The case has yet to come to court, but during a Martin Luther King Day rally in Durham, state NAACP Vice President Curtis Gatewood mentioned the Riley and Nickerson cases and said, “Brutality is still alive and well ... right here.”
During the summer, Assistant Police Chief Winslow Forbes filed a civil rights complaint with the federal Equal Opportunity Employment Commission claiming racist behavior by Lopez. In September, complaints of racial profiling and other racist behavior by Durham police prompted Mayor Bill Bell to call for an investigation, still in progress, by the city’s Human Relations Commission.
Lopez, of Puerto Rican ancestry, has repeatedly denied charges of racism in his department, and Durham Police have disputed the validity of statistics that indicate racial disparities in Durham Police traffic stops and searches.
Lack of resolution on multiple fronts has led to frustration – particularly over the police department’s silence on details of the Ocampo, Walker and Huerta deaths. SBI conclusions are reported to district attorneys, who may release them if they so choose.
Noelle Talley, spokeswoman for the state Attorney General’s office, said SBI field agents have reported their findings in the Ocampo and Walker cases to Durham District Attorney Leon Stanback. Stanback said he and his staff were reviewing the reports and would make them public in the next few weeks – but the SBI is still waiting for autopsy reports from the state medical examiner.
Police silence pending SBI conclusions in the Huerta case led to a protest march that turned violent at Police Headquarters in late November, and last week the Huerta family and a national Latino advocacy group petitioned the FBI to investigate the Durham police department’s policies and procedures.
Investigations time taken
Durham City Councilman Eugene Brown points a finger at the state legislature for the delay in getting information.
“We’re paying for the fact that the criminal justice system is not a high priority with the General Assembly,” Brown said.
According to Talley, the SBI has had 53 officer-involved shootings to investigate this year – up from 39 in 2012 – and it “like many law-enforcement agencies, could use more help,” she said, but good investigations take time.
Durham Mayor Bell said Lopez is being cautious about what he says while the SBI works on, but he and City Manager Tom Bonfield have let the state authorities know that Durham needs information.
“They understand the importance, from our perspective, of trying to get this stuff resolved as soon as possible,” Bell said Sunday.
Asked about his own confidence in the police force and its leader, Bell was cautious as well.
“I don’t want to prejudice anyone by saying a lack of confidence or no confidence or how much confidence I have,” Bell said. “Until we’ve got all the information, it’s just hard to say.”