Police issue new report on shootings

Jun. 24, 2014 @ 11:03 AM

Months before confronting police with what turned out to be a pellet gun, Derek Walker discussed with a co-worker a plan to force officers to shoot him in a confrontation at CCB Plaza.
Walker “had a game plan, from the beginning,” said Assistant Police Chief Jon Peter, who heads the Durham Police Department’s investigations units. “I don’t think it was a spontaneous anger event.”
Peter added that the ensuing incident – Walker died after being shot by an officer last Sept. 17 – does appear to be “strongly related” to a then-ongoing dispute over the custody of Walker’s son.
Walker’s discussion with his co-worker occurred in March. Police did not learn of it until after Walker had died.
“We were not informed of that in March,” Police Chief Jose Lopez said. “This is something that came through the investigation – come to learn he had already discussed this with others who did not come forward.”
Walker’s death was one of three officer-involved shootings in 2013 that sparked criticism of the Police Department. The others claimed the lives of Jose Ocampo and Jesus Huerta.
Lopez, Peter and other department commanders discussed all three Monday after releasing a summary report on the incidents to City Manager Tom Bonfield.
Ocampo’s death occurred July 27, after he confronted officers while holding a knife.
The officers were responding to a report someone had been stabbed. They found a man who’d suffered serous injuries and told them his assailant attacked him with a bottle. The man told them the suspect was down the street.
When they looked, they noted that Ocampo “had blood on his pants,” the report to Bonfield said. Ocampo also had his hands in his pockets. The officers ordered him to show his hands. He did, but then reached into his back pocket and pulled out a 6-inch kitchen utility knife.
Ocampo gripped it by it handle, the blade pointing inward toward his elbow. Officers in English ordered him to drop it, and a witness repeated the order in Spanish. Witnesses reported seeing Ocampo “lunge or jump” toward Officer Ronald Mbuthia, an eight-year department veteran who responded by shooting him.
In the subsequent investigation, several witnesses described Ocampo holding the knife “in various ways,” the report said. One said he was holding it by the blade. But others said he was holding it by the handle, which squared with the observations of firefighters who arrived on the scene to provide first-response medical aid.
The Walker incident was witnessed by dozens, including journalists who captured video and still images of him pointing a weapon at himself and at officers.
The weapon turned out to be a Phantom pellet gun, which is powered by compressed carbon dioxide and is available from various suppliers for prices in the $35 to $40 range.
But it looked enough like a real pistol to convince everyone at the scene “they were in harm’s way,” Lopez said.
Pellet guns sometimes come equipped with a red plastic tip to denote that they are not in fact a firearm. Walker’s weapon lacked such a tip, according to photos included in the report to Bonfield.
The officer who shot Walker, Cpl. Robert Swartz, was about 25 yards away. Walker pointed the pellet gun, finger on the trigger, at the corporal’s face.
Lopez and other commanders said the officers at the plaza weren’t under any orders to hold fire, even though Sgt. Lamont Minor was trying to talk Walker into putting the weapon down.
“Every officer has the freedom to defend themselves and other people, without having to ask for permission,” said Larry Smith, the Police Department’s deputy chief for operations.
Critics of the shooting of Walker have subsequently argued that police should have done more to negotiate, perhaps by bringing some of Walker’s friends and family to the plaza to talk to him.
Other officers were in fact talking to his friends and family, gathering information to use in the negotiation.
But Lopez and Smith said bringing his friends and family to the scene would have been a last resort, given standard negotiations doctrine and the difficulties inherent in securing the plaza.
“You have to be real careful the person you’re putting up there to talk with him is not someone who triggers” a violent response, Smith said.
“And sometimes bringing family members forward gives individuals an opportunity to say goodbye, which is not what you want to do,” Lopez added.
Huerta died in police custody on Nov. 19, in the back of a patrol cruiser of what police say was a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
The report to Bonfield didn’t offer much new information on that incident, save to note that a teen who was with Huerta the night he was picked up, Jaime Perez, told authorities at one point that he’d given Huerta the pistol.
Perez made the disclosure, months after the fact, to a Durham County Sheriff’s Office deputy and a counselor at Jordan High School, Smith said.
The deputy’s report made its way to city police, who in turn notified the State Bureau of Investigation. A Police Department internal-affairs detective questioned Perez on May 21, but the youth, answering in the presence of his attorney, retracted the claim.
Durham District Attorney Leon Stanback declined to press charges in any of the cases. All of the officers involved are back on duty, including Officer Samuel Duncan, the officer who took Huerta into custody.
Duncan served a 40-hour suspension without pay after the department’s internal-affairs staff found he’d violated policies about the handling of prisoners and the use of in-car video systems.
The rookie officer also received remedial training on prisoner handling, and all sworn officers in the department have received two hours of remedial training on search techniques.
The video system in Duncan’s car wasn’t recording at the time of Huerta’s death, having, shut off automatically to save the car’s battery while the engine was officer. Duncan didn’t restart it along with the car as he began to take Huerta to police headquarters.
The department has changed the in-car video system, with help from its manufacturer, to make sure it can restart on its own without an officer having to ask it to by logging back into the system.
Lopez said he’s also told the SBI the department in the future will give the city manager a report on any officer-involved shooting or in-custody death five days after the fact. The reports “will subsequently be made available to the media.”