Durham officer suspended 40 hours without pay in Jesus Huerta's death while in custody

jwise@newsobserver.comJune 23, 2014 

Jesus Huerta

  • Huerta family statement

    Monday afternoon, Huerta family attorney Alex Charns issued a statement on the family’s behalf regarding the police summary report to City Manager Tom Bonfield:

    “Our own investigation is ongoing. We are prohibited by court order from discussing what we may know about what is contained in the SBI investigation file. We believe the DPD can better protect and serve all our citizens by learning from the errors that the DPD admits were made here and those already found in the public record.

    “The following should have happened after the Huerta family’s 9-1-1 emergency call for help for Jesús, a teenager who officers knew (and had discussed on the way to DPD headquarters) that his mother was going to involuntarily commit to a hospital for his drug problem: 1. A complete and thorough search before Jesús was placed in the squad car; 2. In-car video camera operating at all times Jesús was in the squad car; 3. A trip to the Emergency Room based on the extremely high levels of drugs in his blood (see Medical Examiner’s lab report), levels so high Jesús may have been hallucinating and were potentially lethal; and 4) after Jesús was released from the hospital, the misdemeanor trespass warrant could have been served.

    “The DPD and the city can take positive steps to prevent another teenager from dying in the back of a DPD squad car in the future: I. Every DPD officer should receive specialized drug and mental health training and racial equity training (as recommended by Durham Human Relations Commission). There are some 512 sworn DPD officers; 275 have received 40 hours of specialized training in mental health and special concerns with teens according to the DPD website. Every DPD officer should be trained and qualified for crisis intervention. II. Every DPD squad car should have working in-car video cameras that can’t be disabled or deactivated by the officer or by inactivity. III. Hire or train more Spanish-speaking officers and DECC employees so young children aren’t forced to interpret for officers when families ask for help in emergencies.

    ”The Durham Human Relations Commission found that: ‘Current policy allows officers the ability to disable the camera in their vehicle. This camera serves as a record of interactions between the Durham Police Department and citizens.’ The Commission recommended ‘that the vehicle camera remain operating at all times. Officers should not be allowed to disable the camera. We recommend digital copies of these recordings be maintained no less than 180 days.’

    “Our community will judge the appropriateness of the discipline imposed on the officer here, and how the discipline compares to the discipline imposed on other officers. We will all judge how the DPD moves forward to learn from this tragedy and whether it will take the necessary affirmative steps to prevent future in-custody deaths.

    “Huerta family again requests that the city of Durham allow them to place a permanent memorial for Jesús adjacent to the DPD parking lot.

    A respectful memorial of flowers, a cross and candles would also serve as a visible reminder of the consequences of failing to properly search a suspect (for the safety of the suspect and the officer) and failing to properly analyze the call for help (and follow-up interviews) when this tells the officer that the teen in custody is in need of hospitalization before being served with a warrant for a minor offense.”

— Police investigators have concluded an arresting officer violated two police policies the night teenager Jesus Huerta died in custody Nov. 19.

Officer Samuel Duncan was suspended without pay for 40 hours and required to take remedial training in the handling and transporting of prisoners, according to a final summary of investigations into Huerta’s death and those of two men fatally shot by Durham police officers in 2013.

Police Chief Jose L. Lopez sent the summary report to City Manager Tom Bonfield on Monday morning.

Bonfield said he had been aware of most of its contents and forwarded copies to City Council members and Mayor Bill Bell.

According to the report, investigators determined that officers Ronald Mbuthia and Robert Swartz acted appropriately in the deaths of Jose Ocampo on July 27 and Derek Walker on Sept. 17.

Because the summaries include personnel information, City Council approval was required for their public release, he said. The council approved releasing only the summary, Bonfield said, and kept the full reports confidential.

The summary provided some new details on the cases, including policy changes made in response to Huerta’s death.

After receiving reports from the State Bureau of Investigation, District Attorney Leon Stanback concluded there were no grounds for criminal action against any of the officers. A district attorney has the authority to make SBI reports public, but Stanback has not done so for any of the 2013 deaths.

All three cases raised immediate public controversy, the most over Huerta. Police concluded that the Riverside High School student shot himself while handcuffed in the back of Duncan’s patrol car.

Huerta’s arrest, on an outstanding trespassing warrant, and death led to three street protests, including one in which police dispersed demonstrators with tear gas.

According to Lopez’s report, police tests found gunshot residue on gloves that Huerta was wearing at the time, but found none on Duncan’s hands.

Huerta family attorney Alex Charns issued a statement on the family’s behalf Monday, saying that its own investigation “is ongoing.”

“We are prohibited by court order from discussing what we may know about what is contained in the SBI investigation file,” the statement said. “We believe the DPD can better protect and serve all our citizens by learning from the errors that the DPD admits were made here and those already found in the public record.”

Police had previously said that Duncan failed to find a gun when he searched Huerta and violated police policy by failing after the arrest to restart an in-car video camera that had automatically powered off, and would have recorded the shooting.

In response to Huerta’s death, Lopez said, police have updated in-car video systems to prevent an officer’s failure to turn them on and required all officers to undergo a two-hour update class on suspect searches.

The Durham Human Relations Commission had recommended that police keep in-car videos running at all times, in the report of its six-month investigation into alleged racial profiling and other racist behavior by Durham officers delivered to the City Council in May.

During the investigation, the commission also heard public complaints about police actions in the Huerta, Ocampo and Walker deaths.

That report was delivered to Mayor Bell in May. Bonfield is conducting his own research for a city administration response to the commission report, which he expects to deliver to the City Council in August.

Citizens and elected officials also criticized police for being slow to release information while the Huerta, Ocampo and Walker deaths were under internal and SBI review.

Lopez said Monday that in any future cases of police-involved shooting or death in custody the department will make a report to the city manager within five working days of the incident and will release those reports to news media.

Other officer cleared

Ocampo, a Honduran man suspected in a stabbing, was found to be holding a knife by the handle in a threatening manner when he was shot and killed by police July 27, according to the report.

Durham attorney Scott Holmes, who has closely followed the case, has said some witnesses maintain Ocampo, who spoke little English, was holding the knife handle side out in an attempt to surrender the weapon.

None of the officers on the scene speak Spanish, Lopez told reporters Monday, but a bystander translated their orders for Ocampo to drop the knife.

According to the report, only one witness investigators interviewed said Ocampo held the knife blade, and firefighters who arrived at the scene immediately after shots were fired saw a knife removed from Ocampo’s hand that was held by the handle.

“There is no disputing his hand was not holding the blade,” Lopez said.

Wise: 919-641-5895

News & Observer is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service