Chief apologizes for comment about lawyer

Sep. 06, 2013 @ 06:50 PM

Police Chief Jose Lopez says he does not recall making a disparaging remark about a local attorney, but if he did, he’s sorry.

“I take full responsibility for anything I may have said that may have offended anyone or any group of people,” Lopez said at a news conference Friday morning at Durham police headquarters.

The news conference occurred after officials in the city manager’s and city attorney’s offices completed their review of allegations that Lopez told colleagues a defense lawyer injured in a recent shooting deserved to have been shot.

The allegation figured in a recent complaint by Assistant Chief Winslow Forbes to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Forbes is contesting Lopez’s decision to pass him over this spring for a promotion to deputy chief.

Forbes claims the comment occurred as Lopez was rehearsing for a July 2 news conference that officials had called to discuss an early-summer spate of shootings.

During the review, “all the individuals who were at the meeting were asked what they recall,” City Manager Tom Bonfield said. “There was a variety of recollections about what was said. I can say that none of those recollections were thoroughly consistent with the allegation.”

Lopez said he apologized because of the uncertainty surrounding the matter.

“I believe someone may have made it,” he said of the alleged comment. “I cannot definitively say that it wasn’t made, and because I cannot definitively say it [wasn’t] made, I will take responsibility for it.”

He added, “The pain that I have is that someone in this community would think this organization would be thinking in that manner, and that wasn’t so. The statement, if it was made, I am certain was not made intentionally, and was not done with malice.”

Bonfield said the apology was the product of a conversation he and Lopez had “about the best way to disclose” of the review. He added that he considers the matter closed.

“The chief has indicated an apology to community,” Bonfield said. “He took full responsibility. I think we can move on.”

Reports about the alleged comment had prompted two public defenders, Durham’s Lawrence Campbell and Orange County’s James E. Williams Jr., to call for a city investigation.

The injured lawyer is a private-practice attorney who, like many other members of the local bar, sometimes represents indigent clients as court-appointed counsel.

Williams in requesting an investigation noted that defense lawyers are “an integral part of our system of checks and balances on governmental authority.” Lopez acknowledged as much in his comments on Friday.

“Law enforcement officials work very closely with attorneys on a daily basis and I sincerely respect the work they do,” he said. “I have faith in the justice system, and we each play an important role in making it function effectively. We all work together to obtain justice for the victims of crimes and ensure due process for those charged.”

Campbell on Friday said city officials in reviewing the incident had done what he asked.

“The city manager and the City Council have conducted what they determined to be a fair interview and investigation,” Campbell said. “They consider the matter closed. It is a personnel matter, I understand that; all I wanted to do was make sure somebody looked into the matter.”

Asked whether he thought the incident would have lasting effects on the chief’s relationship with local lawyers, Campbell responded, “I hope not.”

Mayor Bill Bell, meanwhile, indicated he wouldn’t welcome any repeat of the incident.

“I would hope in his apology [Lopez] sends a clear message that, if in fact he said it, it shouldn’t have been said,” Bell said. “And that goes down the line: Whether he says it jokingly or off-handedly, those aren’t the type of remarks that should be made. And they should be taken very seriously.”

“I just hope the message is clear those type of remarks are intolerable on behalf of anyone in the department, least of all at the head of the department,” Bell said.

But another City Council member, Eugene Brown, called the affair “much ado about nothing” and said it was promoted by “a disgruntled employee” in Forbes and amplified by “the same clique” that surrounds local activist Victoria Peterson.

“What bothers me about this is that you end up in a cul-de-sac, you get off the main, challenging road we have in Durham of and many cities of addressing crime and poverty and so forth,” Brown said. “And in the cul-de-sac, you’re not making progress. It’s a sideshow.”