Durham Police Chief:
Jose Lopez broke his silence Wednesday on the death of a teenager in the back seat of a police car with a brief news conference that raised more questions about the Nov. 19 incident and drew an immediate rebuke from an attorney for the teen’s family.
Lopez said Jesus Huerta, 17, a student at Riverside High School, shot himself in the head while handcuffed behind his back.
During his six-minute, 30-second press conference, Lopez said Huerta had been searched and handcuffed before he was driven to police headquarters where the shooting took place in the parking lot. Lopez said the gun was not a police officer’s weapon.
How the gun got into the patrol car, and who owned it, remain under investigation, he said.
Lopez “plays hide and seek with the facts,” Alex Charns, an attorney for Huerta’s family, said Wednesday afternoon.
“The chief’s statement is a conclusion exonerating, in part, the DPD, while blaming the one person who can’t speak for himself,” Charns said. “The chief offers no details to support his claims. We are asked to trust without any way to verify the information.”
In a statement released at his news conference, Lopez said he anticipated the disbelief.
“I know that it is hard for people not in law enforcement to understand how someone could be capable of shooting themselves while handcuffed behind the back,” he said. “While incidents like this are not common, they unfortunately have happened in other jurisdictions in the past.”
Lopez had said previously there is no indication that Officer Samuel Duncan, who had taken Huerta into custody, fired a weapon during the incident.
The State Bureau of Investigation is still investigating the shooting, as is the Police Department’s professional standards division. Duncan is on administrative duty until the investigations are complete, as is normal procedure.
On the lookout
Huerta’s older sister had called 911 to ask that police be on the lookout for him after he left home about 2 a.m. Duncan stopped Huerta about an hour later and took him into custody after discovering that the teenager had an outstanding warrant issued in July for second-degree trespassing.
Huerta was found with another man, who gave a false name but was later identified as Jaime Perez, according to police. Perez was issued a citation for resist, delay and obstruct and then released.
According to police, Duncan was taking Huerta to the Durham County jail and stopped at police headquarters to get a copy of the warrant. Driving into the parking lot, Duncan heard what he took to be a gunshot from the back seat and jumped out of the still-moving car, which struck a parked van and stopped.
Officers responding to Duncan’s report of shots fired found Huerta slumped over, still handcuffed and not moving, according to the statement released Wednesday. They also found a handgun on the patrol car’s floorboard.
Huerta’s family and a national Latino organization, Presente.org, has petitioned the FBI to investigate his death and “launch a patterns and practices investigation into the Durham Police Department.”
On Wednesday, Arturo Carmona, the group’s executive director, called the chief’s statements “absurd.”
“Chief Lopez’s statements make obvious that he and his department may have much to hide and are not interested in a serious probe of this very disturbing case in which a handcuffed boy was killed while in Durham Police custody,” he sad.
The family has sought all city employees’ and officials’ communications that concern Huerta’s detention, arrest and death, and all investigation reports concerning Huerta, Charns said.
Durham officers have fatally shot two people this year: Jose Adan Cruz Ocampo, 33, on July 27, and Derek Deandre Walker, 26, Sept. 17. Ocampo was a suspect in a non-fatal stabbing; Walker was fatally shot after pointing his gun at police in a downtown standoff. Results of SBI investigations in those cases have not been publicly released.
Police chief’s statement:
First and foremost, our deepest sympathies continue to be with the Huerta family.
After allowing time for the investigative process, I am here to release updated information concerning the in custody death of Jesus Huerta that occurred on November 19 at approximately two o’clock in the morning.
Out of respect for the family, I have personally communicated with them through their attorney prior to releasing this statement to allow them to hear this information from me before it was released publicly.
Officers were dispatched to the 1200 block of Washington Street in reference to a runaway. Upon arrival in the area, Officer Samuel Duncan encountered Jesus Huerta, who was believed to possibly be the runaway. Another male with Huerta was also located at the scene and he gave officers a false name. Another officer took this person, Jaime Perez, to headquarters where Perez was issued a citation for resist, delay, and obstruct and then he was released.
Officer Duncan discovered that Jesus Huerta had an outstanding warrant for his arrest issued in July for second degree trespassing. Based on the preliminary investigation, it appears that Officer Duncan handcuffed, searched and detained Jesus Huerta in the back seat of his patrol car while the investigation into the incident continued.
Officer Duncan then transported Jesus Huerta to police headquarters to obtain a copy of the warrant before transporting him to the Durham County Jail. As Officer Duncan pulled into the parking lot of headquarters, he heard what he thought to be a gunshot within the vehicle. Officer Duncan jumped from the vehicle for fear of being shot. The patrol vehicle rolled through the parking lot of headquarters and came to rest against another parked vehicle.
Officer Duncan immediately notified the 911 communications center that he believed a shot had been fired. He also called for EMS after observing Jesus Huerta slumped over in the back seat, still handcuffed behind him and not moving. Upon closer examination, it appeared that Huerta had a self-inflicted gunshot wound to his head and a handgun was found in the floorboard of the patrol car. Our department continues to investigate the origin of the weapon but can confirm that it was not a departmental weapon and no officer fired a weapon during this incident. The medical examiner’s office has confirmed that Jesus Huerta died from a gunshot wound to his head. Whether that wound was accidental or intentional is unknown at this time.
I know that it is hard for people not in law enforcement to understand how someone could be capable of shooting themselves while handcuffed behind the back. While incidents like this are not common, they unfortunately have happened in other jurisdictions in the past.
The SBI is continuing to conduct an independent investigation into the events surrounding this incident for any possible criminal violations, which is standard procedure for an incident of this nature. Also in accordance with our standard procedures, our Professional Standards Division is conducting an administrative investigation to determine compliance with department policies and procedures. Officer Duncan remains on administrative duty with pay pending the completion of the investigation.
Once again our thoughts and prayers remain with the Huerta family as we work through this sad and difficult situation.
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