Durham to release police findings in Huerta death this week

jwise@newsobserver.comJanuary 6, 2014 


Evelin Huerta, the older sister of Jesus Huerta, holds a photograph of her brother during a candlelight vigil at the CCB plaza on Thursday December 19, 2013 in Durham, N.C. Huerta died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound while in police custody on November 19, 2013 in Durham, N.C.

ROBERT WILLETT — rwillett@newsobserver.com Buy Photo

  • Police under fire

    Jesus Huerta’s mysterious death in the back seat of a police cruiser is only the latest incident in a series of controversies that have developed around the Durham Police Department over the past 13 months:

    •  In December 2012, police arrested Carlos A. Riley Jr. for shooting a plainclothes officer during a traffic stop. Riley's supporters claim the officer accidentally shot himself, and that the stop was an unwarranted case of racial profiling. Riley's case has yet to come to court.

    •  In February 2013, Assistant Police Chief Winslow Forbes complained to city authorities that he had been passed over for promotion because he had objected to racist attitudes and actions by Police Chief Jose Lopez. After a city-hired consultant found his charges “not substantiated” in June Forbes filed a civil-rights complaint with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The complaint has not been resolved.

    • In July, an officer fatally shot Jose Adan Cruz Ocampo, 33. Initial police accounts conflicted with a death certificate which said Ocampo was killed while fleeing; and the Civil Litigation Clinic at N.C. Central University hired a private investigator after eyewitnesses said Ocampo was handing a knife to officers, hilt-first, when he was shot. Ocampo was a suspect in a non-fatal stabbing. Results of an SBI investigation have been reported to District Attorney Leon Stanback, but he has not released them to the public.

    •  In August, Lopez was accused of saying that a bystander wounded in a drive-by shooting deserved it because the bystander was a public defender. The bystander was not, in fact, a public defender, and Lopez later said he did not remember making the remark although “someone may have” and apologized.

    •  In September, an officer fatally shot Derek Deandre Walker, 26, who was pointing a gun at officers during an hour-long standoff at CCB Plaza. Results of an SBI investigation have been reported to Stanback, but he has not released them to the public.

    •  In September, complaints of profiling and other racist behavior by Durham police prompted Mayor Bill Bell to direct the city's Human Relations Commission to investigate. The commission began work in October, and its investigation is still ongoing.

    •  In December, police used tear gas to break up a memorial gathering for Huerta at CCB Plaza. The police claimed that officers acted only after some members of the crowd threw rocks and firecrackers at them, but some witnesses and participants said no objects were thrown and the gathering was peacefully disbanding when police acted.

    • A Taser-use case, filed by Bryan DeBaun against Officer Daniel J. Kuszaj and the city of Durham, has buoyed civil rights advocates and others fighting for more limits on the device. The North Carolina Supreme Court issued an order on Dec. 18 that remands the DeBaun case to the N.C. Court of Appeals for reconsideration as to whether the Durham Police Department’s excessive-force policy violates the state constitution.

— Mayor Bill Bell said Monday night that the city will release the findings of a Police Department investigation into the Nov. 19 death of Jesus Huerta some time this week.

“Certainly before Friday,” Bell said.

Bell said the investigation into the teenager’s fatal shooting is not complete but “will be … within the next couple of days.”

He made the announcement at the start of the City Council’s regular meeting, following a closed meeting with city attorneys. No police officers attended the closed meeting.

Earlier Monday, Bell said results would be given to the Huerta family before they are released to the general public.

“We want to be respectful,” he said. “A young man lost his life … and we don’t take that lightly.”

Huerta, 17 at the time of his death Nov. 19, suffered a fatal gunshot wound to his head while handcuffed in the back seat of a police cruiser on Nov. 19. He had been arrested on an outstanding warrant for trespassing after his family asked police to be on the lookout for him after he walked away from home following an argument.

Police have said no officer fired a weapon, and that evidence suggests Huerta somehow shot himself. Police Chief Jose Lopez has said the State Bureau of Investigation has confirmed Huerta was wearing gloves and that the gloves had gunpowder residue on them.

Other details have been withheld pending results of the SBI investigation, but Bell and many members of the public have called on the police to reveal their information on his death.

Bell said the council voted unanimously to release the investigation results, which had been recommended by City Manager Tom Bonfield and City Attorney Patrick Baker. Release, he said, is regarded as “central to maintaining (public) confidence” in the city government.

“We want to release as much information as possible,” Bell said.

The report to be released this week is on the Police Department’s internal investigation, which is separate from an ongoing probe by the State Bureau of Investigation.

Bell said the SBI findings, which still lack a state medical examiner’s report, will not be released to the city, but rather to District Attorney Leon Stanback.

“It will be up to the DA’s office to determine what” is done with that information, Bell said. Stanback has previously said he expects to make those results public.

PAC statement

Also Monday, the Durham People’s Alliance, one of the community’s major political-action groups, issued a statement on the police use of tear gas to break up a memorial gathering for Huerta and other controversies swirling around the Police Department.

“We call upon the Durham Police Department (DPD) to engage more collaboratively and transparently with the community to explain the tragic events of November 19,” the PA statement said in part. “We also call upon the DPD to focus on controlling the small number of violent demonstrators without resorting to the use of aggressive dispersion tactics on peaceful demonstrators. These actions are instilling fear and distrust across the community and cannot continue”

According to the PA, another memorial protest is planned Jan. 19.

Wise: 919-641-5895

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