City Councilman Eddie Davis said it was “a good day for Durham” after Police Chief Jose Lopez’s forced resignation after years of strained relations with some members of the community.
“It gives him an opportunity to look for a new town that might be a better fit,” Davis said. Lopez’s departure, he said, “might bring a better police and community relationship, and I think it will give the city an opportunity to assess what we really need in a police chief.”
On Tuesday, City Manager Tom Bonfield announced Lopez would retire at the end of the year. The news marked the beginning of the end for Lopez, who became the Bull City’s top cop in September 2007 after spending 23 years in Hartford, Conn., where he rose through the ranks to become assistant police chief.
In Durham, Lopez has led a department under scrutiny for alleged racial bias, several officer-involved shootings and the death of a teenager in police custody. Many criticized Lopez’s communication style and accessibility and his ability to relate with all segments of the community, particularly the black community.
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Lopez didn’t return a voice message left on his cellphone Tuesday but issued a statement to the Police Department’s sworn personnel. He cited their help in the department making many advances, including achieving a Gold Standard Accreditation and establishing a Special Victims Units, a Mental Health Outreach Unit and a Mobile Field Force.
“What I have enjoyed the most as chief has been watching every one of you work on a daily basis and invoking a feeling of much pride knowing that I was part of the best that law enforcement has to offer,” he wrote. “The last two years have been difficult for law enforcement, but together we have weathered it in a manner in which we can all be proud.”
Time to go
In an interview, Bonfield said he decided at the beginning of the summer that it was time for Lopez to go.
He said he waited to act because he didn’t want it to appear he was removing Lopez in response to any specific incidents this summer that had heaped more public criticism on the chief.
“I couldn’t say it was any one specific reason,” Bonfield said. “It was a variety of things, principally, looking to the future. What we needed, and what the community expected in the leadership.”
In general, Bonfield said he was concerned about a rising crime rate, poor relations between the police and community, and low employee morale.
Bonfield said he met with Lopez about 10 days ago and gave him some time to consider the options of retiring with notice, resigning or being terminated.
“He chose to retire at the end of the year,” Bonfield said. Lopez, whose annual salary is $143,544.04, will receive half that for six months of severance pay.
Chief District Court Judge Marcia Morey called Lopez a “tremendous person.”
“I regret to hear about his retirement on a professional level of knowing him and knowing how dedicated he was,” she said.
Policing was only part of his job, Morey said. He was also involved with many community programs, social services and the school and mental health systems, she said.
Lopez was receptive, she said, when she expressed concerns about cases in which she thought officers’ activities were inappropriate. His support, she added, was also crucial in the county and city establishing and expanding its misdemeanor diversion program, in which some first-time, nonviolent offenders ages 16 to 21 avoid a formal charge and criminal record.
But, Lopez was “at times tone-deaf to the voice of the Durham community,” Morey added. “That was his downfall.”
Mayor Bill Bell, who two years ago ordered an investigation that found “racial bias and profiling present in the Durham Police Department practices,” said he did not want to judge Lopez’s performance.
“I have to assume he did the best job he could do and have to hope he was doing the best job he could do,” Bell said. “Things happen, and you have to hopefully learn from them going forward.”
But things kept happening.
In 2013, three people died in interactions with Durham police, including Riverside High School student Jesus Huerta, who died in November from a self-inflicted gunshot while handcuffed in the back of a patrol car.
In July 2013, police shot and killed Jose Ocampo, a Honduran man wanted in connection with a stabbing. Police said Ocampo was brandishing a knife, though some said the man, who spoke little English, was surrendering the knife handle side out when he was killed. A police investigation said a knife removed from Ocampo’s hand was held by the handle.
In September 2013, police shot and killed Derek Walker during a standoff at CCB Plaza downtown after he pointed a gun at an officer. An investigation later revealed that Walker, distraught after losing a custody battle with his ex-wife, was carrying a CO2-powered pellet pistol, which closely resembles a real firearm.
This summer, the chief drew more criticism after a meeting of Durham Congregations, Associations and Neighborhoods where he declined to make a public commitment to reducing racial profiling during traffic stops and searches. Lopez, who repeatedly denied police have a racial bias, said the group caught him off guard.
Last month, defense attorney Alex Charns called for Lopez’s resignation after the chief expressed “disappointment” with a jury’s decision in the case of Carlos Antonio Riley. Jurors acquitted Riley of shooting an officer in the thigh during a traffic stop. Charns contended the officer pulled the trigger during a struggle.
Most recently, some community members questioned the Police Department’s use of force in the Sept. 5 shooting of La’Vante Biggs.
Biggs, 21, was pointing a gun at himself and then an officer outside his Angier Avenue home when he was fatally shot. He had called 911 that morning and made statements such as “It’s not nobody’s fault,” and hung up.
Biggs’ mother, Shanika Bigggs, later said he had been depressed about a recent breakup and not seeing his children.
Four officers fired 12 shots. Later police learned that Biggs’ gun was a replica Airsoft air gun, which closely resembled a real gun, according to police.
Bell said he tried to learn more about the Biggs shooting the day it happened.
“I went to the crime scene, but I was too late,” he said. “When I got there, it was all taped up.”
The mayor said he still has questions about the shooting. “Why were so many shots fired?” he asked. “I need to understand that.”
Bell would not comment on whether the City Council wanted Lopez to go but said he supported the manager’s decision. While Bonfield reports to the City Council, Lopez reports to Bonfield.
Bell, Davis and City Councilman Eugene Brown said it was Bonfield’s decision.
“We appreciate (Lopez’s) eight years of public service to the city of Durham,” Brown said. “I concur with the manager’s decision. I think it is a time to start a new chapter in the book of public safety in Durham.”
Davis said he is looking forward to a “communitywide” conversation about what the city needs in its next police chief.
Bonfield said he isn’t ruling out looking for candidates within the Police Department, but he also plans to conduct a national search with the assistance of a consulting firm and national police associations.
Timeline of trouble
▪ September 2007: Jose Lopez becomes Durham police chief amid scrutiny over the department’s handling of the Duke lacrosse case. Lopez succeeds a retiring Steve Chalmers.
▪ October 2012: Stephanie Nickerson is charged with resisting and assaulting an officer who, she claims, beat her. Her complaint leads to demonstrations before the officer resigns and a judge dismissed the charges.
▪ December 2012: Police arrest Carlos A. Riley for allegedly 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. In August 2015, a jury finds Riley guilty of common law robbery, but acquits him of the assault charge.
▪ July 2013: An officer fatally shoots Jose Adan Cruz Ocampo, 33, a suspect in a nonfatal stabbing. The incident prompts complaints of undue force, but the State Bureau of Investigation concludes Ocampo was holding a knife in a threatening manner and District Attorney Leon Stanback finds no grounds for legal action against the officer.
▪ August 2013: Lopez is accused of saying a bystander wounded in a drive-by shooting deserved it because the bystander was a public defender. The bystander was an attorney but not a public defender. Lopez later says he does not remember making the remark although “someone may have,” but apologizes anyway. The information came a civil-rights discrimination complaint filed against Lopez by Assistant Chief Winslow Forbes.
▪ September 2013: Police shoot and kill Derek Walker during a standoff at CCB Plaza downtown after he points a gun at an officer. An investigation later reveals Walker, who was distraught after losing a custody battle with his ex-wife, was carrying a CO2-powered pellet pistol, which closely resembles a real firearm.
▪ September 2013: Complaints of profiling and other racist behavior by Durham police prompts Mayor Bill Bell to direct the city’s Human Relations Commission to investigate. The commission concluded in March 2015 that racial bias and profiling exist within the Durham Police Department and made more than 30 recommendations to address it.
▪ November 2013: Jesus Huerta, a Durham teen, shoots himself while handcuffed in police custody last year. The officer who had failed to find the gun on the teenager was later suspended without pay for 40 hours and required to take remedial training in the handling and transporting of prisoners
▪ December 2013: Police use tear gas to break up a memorial gathering for Huerta. Police said officers acted only after some members of the crowd threw rocks and firecrackers at them, but some witnesses say the gathering was peacefully disbanding when police acted.
▪ April 2014: Seven Durham Police Department employees, including six officers, are disciplined for keeping parts of confiscated firearms that had been ordered destroyed.