NAACP criticizes City Council over Huerta

Jan. 10, 2014 @ 08:19 PM

A lawyer for the state NAACP blasted Durham’s City Council on Friday, saying in reaction to the Jesus Huerta case and other recent incidents that it’s failed to give the city Police Department the proper supervision.

The council’s failures have contributed to a “mistrust gap” between the community and police, said Irving Joyner, a N.C. Central University law professor who chairs the state NAACP’s legal-redress committee.

“Not only is that mistrust gap becoming intolerable in the city of Durham, but [so is] the lack of faith resident in the Durham City Council, who is the governing body for the city of Durham, who has absolutely abdicated its responsibility to oversee, to hold accountable, the Durham Police Department for actions it has taken in this community,” he said.

Joyner said Huerta’s was “not the first killing by police officers of citizens here in Durham,” and the department’s practices have long been faulty.

Police apparently “have the feeling they can do anything they want to do and get away with virtually anything they want to do, and as long as the City Council isn’t upholding its responsibility of oversight and control over the Police Department, that’s basically true,” Joyner said.

The professor’s comments came during a news conference that followed by an hour one by the Police Department, in which commanders said Huerta had a weapon concealed on his person that a rookie officer missed in a pat-down search before taking him in.

A lawyer for Huerta’s family, Alex Charns, preceded Joyner to the podium and stopped well short of making any claim that police killed the youth. He said the family doesn’t know what happened, though the gun “most likely” was in the back seat of the patrol car when an officer placed Huerta in it.

Police discounted that possibility, saying both the officer who arrested Huerta and the officer who used the car before him had checked the back for contraband without finding any.

Joyner’s comments on oversight drew only a muted response from Mayor Bill Bell.

“They’re entitled to their opinion,” Bell said of Joyner and the NAACP. “Of course, we’re entitled to our opinion.”

Bell added that the council’s role by law is more one of overseeing the city manager, who’s otherwise responsible for the administration of the city.

Joyner’s comments marked the highest-level comment from the state NAACP on the Police Department since 2006, when a predecessor as legal redress chairman, Chapel Hill lawyer Al McSurely, said it’d “done a good job” in probing the Duke lacrosse case.

But the department’s investigation of that case contributed to the indictment of three men on what state Attorney General Roy Cooper later said were false charges of rape.

Cooper in tossing the charges in 2007 said they’d resulted from a “tragic rush to accuse and failure to verify” the allegations.

The lacrosse case subsequently spawned three civil lawsuits against the city by members of Duke University’s 2005-06 men’s lacrosse team.

Two of those lawsuits remain pending, with the exonerated players alleging that detectives participated in a malicious prosecution. They want a court-appointed overseer to manage the Police Department.

Cooper’s office two years ago intervened in a police-related civil-rights dispute in Fayetteville, telling the Fayetteville City Council it lacked authority under state law to tell officers they couldn’t do so-called “consent searches” of stopped motorists.

Critics said the searches were unfairly targeting minorities.

Nuances aside, Charns like Joyner called for City Hall intervention in Police Department affairs. He said the department is engaging in a “shell game” regarding the truth of the Huerta case.

“Who’s going to do something about it, who in this building will stop it?” he told reporters gathered outside City Hall. “The culture starts at the chief and above that is the person who hired the chief.”

That seemed to imply intervention by City Manager Tom Bonfield, though Police Chief Jose Lopez was in fact hired in 2007 by Bonfield’s predecessor, former City Manager Patrick Baker.

Baker is now city attorney.