Durham News

Durham Police Chief reflects as tenure ends

As Police Chief Jose Lopez packed up his office this week, he described underestimating a group that had come to him expressing concerns about police bias.

“I honestly thought they were going to be working with me in an honest way,” Lopez, 61, said. “There was no honor when we shook hands at the meeting. They found their new avenue at City Hall.”

Over his eight-year tenure, which ends Dec. 31, Lopez had been generally accepted, he said. But in 2012 and early 2013, individuals claiming to represent different organizations started expressing concerns to him about police bias in pulling over and searching black residents in Durham and overly aggressive behavior by officers.

After those meetings, Lopez said they shook hands, and agreed the statistics were “flawed” and to work to get to the truth.

Instead, Lopez said, those individual took their concerns to City Hall and tried to get the Police Department’s accreditation pulled.

“This has been a well-organized and planned effort – and they will deny it – to get their agenda met at City Hall,” Lopez said.

But people who attended those meetings tell a different story.

They say they sought to change police practices not the police chief. Lopez refused to acknowledge concerns about traffic stop data, they said, and denied requests to meet with members of the community, except on his terms.

“What he mostly did was dispute what we were saying,” said Nia Wilson, executive director of SpiritHouse, which along with other organizations created the FADE (Fostering Alternative Drug Enforcement) coalition.

“He basically told us that the numbers didn’t mean anything. That we were all just extremely confused,” said Ian Mance, an attorney with the Southern Coalition for Social Justice (also a member of FADE. “It was patronizing.”

The clashing perspectives, along with some high-profile shootings and a recent spike in violent crime, appear to have paved a path to Lopez’s forced resignation.

Complaints from FADE and others prompted Mayor Bill Bell in September 2013 to direct the city’s Human Relations Commission to investigate. After months of hearings, the commission concluded in March 2015 that racial bias and profiling existed within the department.

Lopez’s response then and now is that numbers that show blacks being pulled over and searched at a higher rate than whites reflects where crime occurs and where people ask for police help, not profiling.

Lopez also says FADE members don’t represent the larger community.

“You have 250,000 people here in the city of Durham. And I meet and see many of them, and they don’t come up to me with those same concerns,” Lopez said. “They come up to me praising the work the Police Department is doing, enjoying the direction the city is going in as far as its progression, using very colorful words as far as how they feel about those groups.” 

‘No snow’

Lopez first applied to become police chief in Durham in 2002 after Teresa Chambers left for a federal position. Lopez sent his resume in, but he never heard anything back, he said. The position went to Steve Chalmers.

After Chalmers announced his retirement in 2007, Lopez again set his sights on Durham.

Durham’s positive aspects included “there was no snow,” it was more suburban than Hartford, and it was an area that was really moving forward.

Then City Manager Patrick Baker said Lopez, who rose in the ranks to assistant chief at the Hartford Police Department over 23 years, stood out for a combination of reasons.

“First and foremost his personality,” said Baker, now the city attorney. “He is someone who is very easy to get along with, and I continue to find him to be a genuine and humble person.”

When Baker visited Hartford, he consistently heard officers describe Lopez as genuine and empathetic. That continued in Durham, Baker said, as rank and file officers have described at various retirement events stories of Lopez attending funerals and sitting in hospital rooms, not just for police officers, but their family members.

Another factor that led to Lopez being hired, Baker said, included Hartford was using a CompStat – short for Computer Comparison Statistics – model of policing, which uses statistics and other tools to manage resources and fight crime.

“(Lopez) seemed to be the father of CompStat in the Hartford Police Department,” Baker said.

Lopez’s initial lessons as chief included the Police Department “was not as bad,” as some had described. Officers were talented, professional and using best practices, he said.

Deputy Police Chief Larry Smith, who will serve as interim police chief, described Lopez as “a very compassionate police chief,” who genuinely cared about the department and community.

He was also a police officer’s chief, Smith said. He was the type of chief who would speak to officers, ride along with and visit late-night DWI check points.

“Chief Lopez was a good boss,” Smith said.

Still, anyone who faced the high-profile incidents that unfolded in 2013 would be challenged, and Lopez handled those the best he knew how, Smith said.

“We all learned a lot,” Smith said.

In 2013, the Police Department faced street protests after the death of Jesus Huerta, a handcuffed high school student who died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound in the back seat of a police car. The police shootings that year of Jose Adan Cruz Ocampo, shot by an officer four times, and Derek Walker, who pointed a gun at himself and police during a standoff in downtown, raised more concern.

From the beginning in the Ocampo case, Lopez said, he knew it was justifiable shooting.

“A lot of things that were said in the beginning, I believe the people who were saying it knew different, but they just said it any way,” Lopez said. “It’s like the ill-informed misinforming.”

The Huerta case, he said, was a very tough case because somebody’s life was taken in police custody. “Even though we didn’t cause his death, it’s still hard,” he said.

Now Lopez is applying to police departments throughout the country, he said.

“I’m hoping that maybe somebody here who is willing to pay good money for my services, might hire me, and I can stay in this area,” he said. “Otherwise, I am just going to have to move on. I don’t feel old enough to just stay home and do nothing.”

Virginia Bridges: 919-829-8924, @virginiabridges

In his own words:

What have done right with this police department?

I think that what I have done right with this Police Department, is that I have treated them decently and let them do the work that they know how to do. I moved them in a more positive community-based philosophy, and a family-based philosophy to enhance the caring that they already had. I have gotten facilities, like the substations, they are all since I got here. We are actually going to get a headquarters that they otherwise didn’t have before,

What could you have done better?

I think what I could have done better is taken more control of what I know I needed to do versus listening to some of the lawyers (representing the victims’ families). I should have just gone to (the family’s) house (to speak with them).

I should have just come and told the Ocampo story real quick.

… I think there were some more community meetings that I should have had that I did not have. But a lot of that had to do with the fact of trying to get the community out (to meetings) has been a bear. I mean I show up at a meeting with three members of the community, and I show up with 12 cops.

What should the community understand about policing Durham?

I think the community needs to start supporting its police department a lot more, and I think the political arena here needs to start vocally supporting its policing. When I say vocally supporting the police department, they have to do it during times of controversy and not jump on the first … story that turns up that’s negative and give the officers the benefit of the doubt and the police chief.