City leaders react to protest

Dec. 20, 2013 @ 07:06 PM

Mayor Bill Bell and City Councilman Steve Schewel say they want police to release the information they have about a trio of police-involved shootings, even if that means not waiting for reports on them from the State Bureau of Investigation.

“Let them get it out, and let us know what the issues are,” Bell said. “They owe it to us, and they owe it to the public to do that.”

“That information all needs to come out, and it needs to come out now,” Schewel added.

The two spoke in separate interviews a day after police used tear gas to break up a demonstration downtown by supporters of the family of Jesus Huerta, a teenager who died of what authorities say was a self-inflicted gunshot wound while in police custody on Nov. 19.

Police Chief Jose Lopez has acknowledged the youth was handcuffed in the back of a patrol car when the shooting occurred. On Friday, he said the SBI lab found gunshot residue on gloves worn by Huerta.

But he has argued that police can’t say much about the investigations until the SBI has finished its work.

The other two shootings followed armed confrontations between weapons-wielding men and police. Jose Ocampo died in July after facing officers while holding a knife. Derek Walker was killed in September after brandishing a pistol at officers and bystanders during a standoff downtown.

Bell and Schewel spoke Friday as City Manager Tom Bonfield was issuing a statement that pledged to “ensure full disclosure of the results of the SBI investigation [of the Huerta case] once it is complete.”

Both elected officials made it clear they’re not willing to wait on the SBI, and would rather the Police Department go ahead and release the findings of its in-house probes.

If there’s information they need to hold back, they need to be specific about what it is and why, Bell said.

For instance, the SBI’s residue testing may be complete but “the question still is, what about the gun, whose gun was it and why was it there,” Bell said. “If they have that, they can let us know, and if they don’t have that, they can say that.”

The handling of Thursday’s protest, however, introduced a new issue that on Friday sparked a couple of dozen emails to the council from angry residents.

Police maintained they were provoked into using tear gas to disperse the crowd after several participants threw rocks and bottles at police and vandalized property.

But most of the people who wrote the council Friday argued police had mishandled the incident, opting for a conspicuous initial show of force that may have fueled disorder instead of defusing it.

“They would do much better to approach the citizens of our city with peaceful outstretched hands of cooperation, not armor, batons, guns and tear gas,” Charles Samuels, co-owner of downtown’s Scratch Bakery, said in one message. “Our police do this so well the majority of the time. There was no call for this militaristic approach last night.”

Ross Grady, a North Mangum Street resident, told Schewel he’s “really concerned that the chief is feeling besieged by the negative attention to Huerta’s death, and [that] that feeling is spreading throughout the department.”

Grady added he believes it’s time for Durham to find a new police chief, a sentiment voiced by most of the other people who wrote the council.

Several made a point of saying the Police Department is responsible for Huerta’s death, even presuming the wound that killed him was self-inflicted.

“Whether or not the arresting officer was directly responsible for the gunshot that ended Jesus’ life, he was responsible for inadequately searching him and putting him at risk,” said Viola Glenn. “I expect nothing short of nearly saintly behavior from the PD on this issue, not the temper tantrums shown so far.”

There were indications in various social media that police had reason to worry in advance of Thursday’s protest about a repeat of the sort of vandalism that occurred at the department’s headquarters during another march last month.

Followers of a pro-Huerta Facebook page called “Chuy Huerta Justice We Need Answers” posted links to sites that clearly approved of the November vandalism.

One, a group called the Inside-Outside Alliance that purports to support Durham County Jail inmates, said it seeks “a space and time where [police] will not be able to do their jobs at all, where they … will be considered ‘trespassers’ in our neighborhoods.”

Its posting is at http://bit.ly/1jqSIRX.

The other was an anonymous account of the November march that said the participants in it had established amongst themselves “a new consensus: that violence against the police can be justified and desirable.” That posting is at http://bit.ly/1i8wUsX.

Schewel also noted that some at Thursday’s march had distributed “Seven Myths About the Police” leaflets. A copy obtained by The Herald-Sun included a passage that said it “may sometimes even be necessary to set police on fire,” out of compassion for those “who would otherwise suffer at their hands.”

So “there was definite provocation,” Schewel said.

But “regardless of the level of provocation, the kind of response we had last night and the resulting chaos is not something that we can repeat,” he continued. “That’s not a long-term strategy that’s going to work.”

He said police and protest organizers need to cooperate, police “need to carefully evaluate the minimum level of force needed to maintain order,” and that police, protestors and city officials must begin “active peacemaking” over the next month to ensure there’s no repetition of Thursday night’s scene.

Schewel said he’s tried to contact the Huerta family personally, finding no one at home at what he’d been led to believe was their apartment. He’s also called the Huertas’ lawyer, Alex Charns, to solicit his help in setting up a meeting.

“I think we need to be talking,” Schewel said. “We need the truth out about what happened. All the truth we know at this point needs to come out about the investigation, we need to let the chips fall where they may and we need to begin a process of peacemaking and reconciliation.”