Openness needed in police probe

Nov. 20, 2013 @ 05:33 PM

Once again, Durham police find themselves under scrutiny for the death of a suspect.

The latest event seems especially tragic, if there can be any gradation of such profoundly sad events.  A 17-year-old high school student, picked up on a warrant for second-degree trespassing, ended up fatally injured in the back of a police car in the Durham Police Headquarters parking lot.

As always, it’s important to acknowledge that much is not yet publicly known – and perhaps not known to investigators – about this incident.  Police Chief Jose Lopez said Tuesday morning, a few hours after Jesus Huerta’s death in that patrol car, that “it does not appear that any Durham police officer fired a weapon during this incident.”

But that statement raises many questions.

How did Huerta die? The police car had rolled into a nearby van after its driver, Officer Samuel Duncan, had jumped from it after hearing a loud noise, apparently leaving it in gear. Television aerial shots showed little significant damage, but was the impact somehow a factor?

Was there an accidental weapon discharge? Was there some injury prior to his arrest, perhaps unnoticed at first?

Was there self-inflicted injury?

Many of the questions may not be answered until investigations by the department’s professional standards division and the State Bureau of Investigation are complete.  The very first step may be in determining the cause of death, which Lopez said was unknown Tuesday. The state medical examiner’s office will perform an autopsy and presumably determine the cause.

We would like to think a young man in custody of a highly trained police officer and with a department policy calling for the suspect to be securely handcuffed, would be relatively safe from harm and precluded from presenting any threat to the officer. 

But again, we don’t at this time know.

We hope the department will be forthcoming with details as it and other investigating agencies learn them.  Fairly or not, the department is under a spotlight over two earlier incidents this year in which their encounters with suspects have ended in fatalities.

Moreover, another suspect died in an encounter with N. C. Central University police after they said he fired a shotgun at them.

And Durham’s Human Relations Commission is looking into critic’s complaints that more black motorists than white are pulled over and subject to searches by city police.

“I want to reassure the community that this incident is being thoroughly and completely investigated in an effort to determine exactly what happened,” Lopez said Tuesday morning.

We take the chief at his word. We believe he sincerely wants, in this incident and in others, to pursue the inquiry wherever it might lead and to take appropriate action.

But maximum openness at every step of the way is what the public should expect and the department should deliver.