PA criticizes police with Huerta report pending

Jan. 06, 2014 @ 08:41 PM

One of Durham’s big-three political groups said Monday that the city Police Department must shore up the “diminished public trust” that’s resulted from the in-custody death of teenager Jesus Huerta.

The move by the People’s Alliance came hours before the City Council voted to authorize the release, later this week, of the department’s internal-affairs investigation into the shooting.

“We’re trying to get this out as quickly as possible,” Mayor Bill Bell said, adding that the council had received an “oral summary” of the report during a closed-door meeting. “Certainly no later than Friday, that will be made available.”

The People’s Alliance statement called on police to make an effort, directly or through “an agreed-upon intermediary,” to reach out to Huerta’s family to find out their questions about the case.

Huerta died on Nov. 19 while handcuffed in the back of a police patrol car outside department headquarters on West Chapel Hill Street. He was taken into custody at the behest of his family, after he left home in the wake of some sort of argument.

He suffered a gunshot wound to the head. Police Chief Jose Lopez has said the wound was self-inflicted, but has not said whether it was intentional or accidental.

The department’s handling of the case has drawn widespread criticism, with many residents writing the council to say authorities at the very least have been slow to accept responsibility for failing to ensure Huerta’s safety.

The criticism intensified last month after police used tear gas to break up a pro-Huerta demonstration at CCB Plaza on the one-month anniversary of the teen’s death.

People’s Alliance leaders said they also didn’t approve of the department’s handling of the protest.

The group “stands in fervent opposition to the escalating police response to the public’s rightful demand for answers in the death of Jesus Huerta,” its statement said.

The PA acknowledged that some demonstrators had been violent – police headquarters was vandalized during an initial protest in November – but said officers should be able to control them “without resorting to the use of aggressive dispersion tactics” that are “instilling fear and distrust across the community.”

It added that the department leaders should “make clear how they intend to respond” to the next protest, likely on Jan. 19.

“Taking to the streets is a strong tradition in Durham and that right must be protected,” alliance leaders said.

The People’s Alliance is the best-funded of Durham’s big-three political groups, and in the past two elections has backed all seven of the council’s current members.

The other groups, the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People and the Friends of Durham, to date have not weighed in on the Huerta case.

People’s Alliance spokesman Milo Pyne said the decision to release the statement followed “internal discussions” among the group’s leaders that were slowed by the holiday and the uncertainty surrounding the facts of the case.

“We don’t want to make any rash statements that lead to any conclusions, but upon reflection, it’s true that something is not right,” Pyne said. “And the concerns of the family need to be taken very seriously.”

Bell said city officials will see to it the Huerta family receives a copy of the internal-affairs report once it’s ready, most likely routing it to them through their attorney, Alex Charns.

The mayor noted that the internal-affairs report isn’t the only one pending. The State Bureau of Investigation also is investigating and will submit its findings to District Attorney Leon Stanback.

The SBI report “is not complete” because state investigators await official autopsy findings, Bell said. But once the agency finishes, the decision on whether to release the SBI report will be up to Stanback

Bell added that the internal-affairs report will be released under state law that allows the disclosure of confidential personnel matters when, in the opinion of the council and city manager, it’s “essential to maintaining public confidence in the administration of city services.”