Durham News: Opinion

Wilson: Police punishment doesn’t pass smell test

I don’t know if Police Chief Jose Lopez likes Gilbert and Sullivan, but two lines of verse in their operetta masterpiece, “The Pirates of Penzance,” neatly sum up his predicament:

“When constabulary duty’s done,

the policeman’s lot is not a happy one.”

I can’t fault Lopez for feeling picked on, especially in the wake of the Jesus Huerta affair. Huerta was the 17-year-old Latino who died of a self-inflicted gunshot in the back seat of a police cruiser – and in the department’s parking lot, no less.

Huerta’s death sparked three street protests that resulted in police firing tear gas and thousands of dollars in damage done to city property.

Meanwhile, investigations of alleged police abuse are afoot and proposals for greater civilian oversight of the Police Department are finding favor, especially in the minority community.

Now comes Lopez’ disclosure that he has disciplined six sworn officers and the department’s armorer with widely varying suspensions for violating a new state law covering disposal of seized firearms. The Durham Seven had taken parts from the firearms, mainly pistols, for personal as well as department weapons.

Here’s the kicker in something that doesn’t pass the smell test: Lopez says the seven men, the highest ranker a captain, did not intentionally violate the new law. They just weren’t aware that the protocol for seized weapons had changed when they harvested the firearm parts in January.

The new law recognizes the monetary value of useable firearms and requires them to be returned to an innocent defendant. In a felony conviction, seized firearms with unaltered serial numbers can be sold to federally licensed dealers or given to museums.

Or in some cases, according to Jeffrey Welty, a UNC School of Government professor, end up in legal limbo without any clear guidance on what to do about them.

The new law went into effect Sept. 1, 2013, and the officers didn’t know as late as January that most seized firearms were no longer to be dismantled or destroyed?

Lopez says the officers and the armorer should have known about the change in state law, but he has said nothing about the department’s responsibility to see that sworn officers and civilians had signed off on the new rules.

Correct me if I’m wrong, Chief, but I get the impression that the word didn’t get around the department very well.

If the Seven had been aware of the new rules when they picked apart seized weapons over a two-day period in January, they deserved the discipline Lopez meted out.

But if, as he suggests, they dismantled the seized firearms in blissful ignorance of the change in state law, a tongue-lashing should have sufficed.

In some respects, the General Assembly deserves a tongue-lashing, too. The law before Sept. 1 gave greater latitude to the courts and local police departments in deciding what to do with seized weapons. Many were permanently disabled or destroyed through court orders.

Local government is usually the most responsive government, and the General Assembly’s tinkering with the seized firearms law effectively prevents local jurisdictions from dealing with the issue as they see fit.

As the law stands now, many seized weapons can be sold to firearms dealers and possibly returned to the streets.

If the policeman’s lot in Durham is not a happy one, the Curious Case of the Durham Seven helps explain why.