DURHAM — Mayor Bill Bell called for more police transparency Friday as Durham debated another tense night of protest.
Bell said the Durham Police Department should release its internal review of the Nov. 19 death of 17-year-old Jesús “Chuy” Huerta in the back seat of a police car, as soon as the report is finished.
“What the State Bureau of Investigation comes up with later, what the medical examiner comes up with, that’s for them to do,” Bell said in an interview. “But if we’ve done our own study, we ought to go ahead and release it.”
He spoke the day after armored police deployed an irritant gas and marched through a crowd of protesters Thursday night in downtown Durham.
Police Chief Jose Lopez said his officers had allowed the protest to continue until some protesters threw bottles and stones, including one that hit an officer. Protesters disputed that explanation, claiming they’d seen no or little violence.
Lopez also added another detail to the department’s previous explanation that Huerta, a Riverside High School student, had shot himself in the head while his hands were cuffed behind his back in a police car. At a Friday morning news conference, Lopez said a forensic test found gunshot residue on a glove Huerta was wearing when he died, evidence that he had fired a weapon. Lopez said that no residue was found on the hands of the officer driving the car.
At a separate news conference, Huerta’s sister, sister-and-law and other protesters criticized Lopez’s handling of both Thursday’s protest and the investigation into Jesús Huerta’s death.
Thursday’s massive police presence was an effort to “intimidate the community,” said Evelin Huerta, sister of Jesús Huerta. The protest movement won’t rest, she said.
“Every time that Chief Lopez says something, it brings out more questions,” Huerta said.
Thursday’s ‘black bloc tactics’
Lopez tried to convey a message of sympathy for the Huerta family while blaming a few people for what he described as violence at Thursday’s protest. He said police had tried to let the protest go on even after a few protesters passed out materials that he said encouraged violence.
One man on Thursday evening did give out instructions for “black bloc tactics” that “allow demonstrators to take action without fear of immediate identification,” and a few protesters covered their faces with black bandanas as the march began.
The fliers said that covering up is important because police can use photos or video to issue charges. A hooded sweatshirt worn over “civilian clothing” can make for a clean exit, the flier stated. However, the document made no call for violence or crime.
Members of Huerta’s family said they did not want to see violence or vandalism. But Huerta’s sister said any crime that a few protesters may have committed doesn’t compare to the pain of loss at the heart of the protests.
“Windows can be fixed. My brother will never be by our side again,” said Evelin Huerta, sometimes identified as Evelin Fernandez. The heavy police presence wasn’t appropriate, she said, for what was billed as a peaceful vigil.
“The police came dressed and armed as if they were ready for battle,” Huerta said. “We have our right, to go and put (on) a vigil.”
The presence of scores of officers was, in part, a response to a Nov. 22 protest march at which people broke windows at the police headquarters and threw firecrackers at officers.
Protesters responded Friday that the scores of officers only added to the tension. Isley Demattus said she saw a single bottle thrown after police tore through a “MURDERED BY POLICE” banner and began to break up the crowd.
Most people in the crowd, Demattus said, were talking peacefully or signing up for an informational list when the gas canisters rolled.
“I saw very little in the way of provocation by protesters,” said protester Serena Sebring. She said police made no warning that they would deploy gas.
“We left with tear gas all over our clothes,” she said. “My daughter woke up this morning, eyes burning, chest stinging.”
While the mayor pushed for more information, he and other city leaders backed the police tactics.
“If they could have dispersed them in any other way than using smoke and gas, I’m sure they would have done it,” Bell said.
City Manager Tom Bonfield said the “actions of a few” drew a “forceful police response” that was intended to prevent further harm of public property and public servants.
Alex Charns, the Huerta family’s lawyer, pressed for more information from Lopez.
‘Where are the lab reports?’
“The chief’s statement today only adds to the mysterious circumstances of Jesús Huerta’s death. Why the continued shell game with the facts of this case by the chief?” Charns said in a written statement.
“Where are the lab reports concerning the (gunshot residue) tests? Where are the photographs of the gloves so the family can see them and determine if they were Jesús’ gloves or gloves they’ve ever seen before? Where are the results for the DNA testing of the inside of the gloves to determine who had worn or touched the gloves?”
A police spokeswoman declined to answer questions about the forensic tests described by Lopez. The State Bureau of Investigation is handling the case, she said.
At least five of the six people arrested remained jailed on Friday evening, their bonds ranging from $1,000 to $2,500. The organizers of the Huerta protests may raise money or otherwise try to help those charged, according to Rafael Estrada Maya, a coordinator.
Those jailed face various charges, including three counts of failure to disperse, one count of trespassing, one count of disorderly conduct, one count of impeding traffic and one charge of carrying a concealed switchblade.