Huerta’s family ‘shocked’ by memorial’s removal
Apparently, about a week was long enough for the Durham Police Department to host a makeshift memorial to a teen that died in the back of a patrol car in the parking lot in November.
Sylvia Fernandez, mother of 17-year-old Jesus Huerta, on Monday went to put flowers at a memorial site at police headquarters that was established on Dec. 19, night of the most recent vigil and march in remembrance of her son.
“She was shocked to find it was all removed,” said Alex Charns, a lawyer who represents the family. “It was very upsetting to the family. It doesn’t cost anything for the city to make a grieving mother feel better. It was a hopeful sign that they had left it up.”
For a department suffering a deficit of goodwill in the community in recent months after three officer-involved shooting deaths and the nationally publicized decision to use tear gas to disperse a demonstration, allowing the memorial had seemed a step in the right direction, Charns said.
Now it’s gone.
On Monday, Durham police spokeswoman Kammie Michael provided the Police Department’s official statement about the memorial’s removal: “The memorial for Mr. Huerta was allowed to be placed in the Police Department parking lot as a courtesy to his family; however, it was not our intent to allow it to remain indefinitely. The memorial was removed by department staff over the weekend after it was allowed to remain on site for slightly more than a week.”
Huerta, a Riverside High School student, died of an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head after he was picked up on a trespassing warrant by Officer Samuel Duncan. At the time, Police Chief Jose Lopez Sr. said, the teen had been searched and cuffed behind the back.
The incident remains under review by the State Bureau of Investigation. Last week, The Herald-Sun reported that the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights also is interested in what happened here in Durham.
But a spokeswoman for the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights said a recent request by its chairman, Martin Castro, for a meeting with Mayor Bill Bell was not part of an investigation.
In requesting the meeting, “the chairman was speaking in his personal capacity,” said Lenore Ostrowsky. “There is no investigation. The commission would have to vote to open an investigation. The [Huerta] issue has not even been brought up before the commission.”
Castro through an aide last week requested a meeting with Bell to discuss “to discuss the recent death of a Latino youth in police custody.”
The aide initially proposed Thursday and Friday as potential dates for a meeting, but later wrote Bell to say the trip had been postponed.
The Commission on Civil Rights is a federal advisory board and watchdog group that reports to Congress and the president. It sometimes also exerts pressure on state and local governments, but under the law it has no enforcement powers.
The Huerta family has requested an investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice, a cabinet agency that does have enforcement power.
Ray Gronberg contributed to this report.