Triangle law enforcement leaders say the recent rioting and violent protests in Ferguson, Mo., are reminders that officers must cross the proverbial blue line to interact and develop a rapport with residents in the communities where they protect and serve.
The closest the Triangle has come to protests and public skepticism about the police took place in Durham last year, after a handcuffed high school student died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound in the backseat of a police car.
Critics said police were slow to provide an explanation for Jesus Huerta’s death, and downtown became the scene of three night-time protests, including one in which police outfitted in riot gear dispersed demonstrators with tear gas.
Durham Police Chief Jose Lopez said his department is now hiring a non-sworn officer to manage the police public information unit – with the goal of creating greater transparency about the agency’s work.
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“The law doesn’t require it, but I think it’s important if it’s not a burden to get the information out there,” Lopez said. “Someone who will present the department in a very transparent way.”
Lopez said he wanted to talk about Huerta’s death but was prohibited because of an ongoing probe by the State Bureau of Investigation. Lopez said during the police and SBI silence, people “with their own agendas hijacked” the investigation. He said those same people, whom he did not name, were responsible for “erroneous information” that fueled public consternation and distrust of the department.
After reviewing two SBI reports about the shooting, Durham County District Attorney Leon Stanback concluded there were no grounds for criminal actions against Samuel Duncan, the officer who had arrested Huerta and put him in the back seat of the car. The Police Department suspended Duncan 40 hours without pay and ordered him to take remedial training in the handling and transport of prisoners.
The public reaction to Huerta’s death in November was compounded by the officer-involved shooting deaths of Jose Adan Cruz Ocampo, who was shot four times on July 27 of last year, and Derek Walker, a man who pointed a gun at police and himself during a standoff downtown.
“We are trying to rebuild that trust in the community. 2013 was not a good time for us in the media,” Lopez said. “We are trying to fix that with greater transparency. When you have a major incident, the public interest is very real and the police department needs to provide information.”
Chapel Hill police responded with a show of force after a late 2011 confrontation with local anarchists who staged brief takeovers of the old Yates Motor Co. building on West Franklin Street and former WCOM community radio station building in Carrboro.
Both buildings were vacant at the time. Members of the department’s tactical team removed seven people from the car dealership.
No one was hurt, but officers were required to undergo specialized training in “peaceful intervention in civil disobedience” in the raid’s aftermath.
“As is always the case, we will look for lessons out of our own experiences and the experiences of other agencies in order to provide a higher level of service to our community,” Chapel Hill police Lt. Josh Mecimore said in an email to The News & Observer.
Even law enforcement officials who haven’t had unrest to deal with in recent years see the events in Ferguson as instructive.
Holly Springs Police Chief John Herring said the Missouri events show that it’s important for police departments to build rapport with the community.
“Open communication, trust and positive relationships with the community, prior to an incident like the one in Ferguson, make the aftermath much more manageable,” Herring said.
Chatham County Sheriff Richard Webster said he, his staff and members of his community were “watching closely” as events unfolded in Ferguson.
“Since taking office in 2002, I have made community relations a top priority,” Webster said. “These interactions have allowed our staff and the public to build trust and understanding in each other.”
The Triangle’s law enforcement commanders all declined to second guess the Ferguson Police Department’s tactics after the shooting that led to several nights of rioting. Some, including Lopez, said they understand the reasoning behind the police show of force during protests in Ferguson.
‘One level higher’
“It’s called the use of force continuum,” Lopez said. “You always go one level higher than the person posing the threat.”
Harnett County Sheriff Larry Rollins agreed.
“You don’t take a knife to a gunfight,” he said.
Wake County Sheriff Donnie Harrison said people have a right to protest, but in cases that require law enforcement intervention, “you’re damned if you do, and you’re damned if you don’t.
“If you show up with a big show of force, people are going to ask, ‘What are you trying to do?’” Harrison said. “But if you don’t and something happens, you’re criticized for that, too. It’s best to open the lines of communication and hope that people can talk through things.”