Councilman frustrated by pace of investigations

Nov. 21, 2013 @ 07:55 PM

A city councilman on Thursday voiced frustration with how long it’s taken to come up with answers for the public regarding a series of shooting incidents involving Durham police.

“Until the investigations are complete, we are all on hold,” Councilman Don Moffitt told colleagues, adding the city “needs information and transparency” about the incidents.

Moffitt prefaced his comments by expressing sympathy to the family of Jesus Huerta, 17, who died Tuesday morning outside the headquarters of the Durham Police Department.

An officer had picked up Huerta, a potential runaway, on the request of his family and was bringing him to headquarters to retrieve an arrest warrant for second-degree trespassing.

The officer, Samuel Duncan, reported to emergency dispatchers there were “shots fired” in the patrol car and a youth was not breathing after suffering a gunshot wound.

Police Chief Jose Lopez has said the death wasn’t the product of an officer firing a weapon. But further explanation awaits a State Bureau of Investigation review.

Also pending are investigations into the July death of Jose Ocampo and the September death of Derek Walker. Both were shot by police officers.

Ocampo’s death came after he confronted officers while holding a knife. Witnesses claimed he was trying to surrender; police said he hadn’t complied with orders to drop the weapon.

Walker’s also followed an armed confrontation with police, in front of numerous witnesses at CCB Plaza in downtown Durham. He was distraught over a child-custody dispute.

City officials regard the incident as a case of “suicide by cop,” but friends of Walker have questioned whether officers at the scene had sufficient training in how to deal with the mentally ill.

Moffitt listed all three of those cases and added another from late 2012, that of Carlos Riley Jr.

Riley is accused of shooting Officer Kelly Stewart, with the officer’s pistol, during a scuffle at a traffic stop. He faces both federal and state charges because of the incident.

In July he signaled through a lawyer that he would plead guilty to a federal weapons-possession charge. He was to have been sentenced this week, but court records indicate that’s been postponed to early January.

Riley, a convicted drug dealer, despite entering the plea bargain maintains he didn’t shoot Stewart. His family contends Stewart shot himself while drawing his weapon, and that Riley Jr. took the pistol to make sure he wouldn’t become a victim of police brutality after having been stopped without cause.

Moffitt said he hopes the SBI and other agencies involved complete their work so officials and the public can know what happened.

“It’s just that I’m frustrated that we have cases that go back a year that are still in the system,” he said. “We need to be moving forward. That’s all. We need the information, we need the results of the investigations, we need to be able to move forward.”

He spoke up at Thursday’s City Council work session and by his own account had not discussed his concerns with other officials beforehand.

But Mayor Bill Bell said Moffitt isn’t necessarily alone.

“All of us share the frustration of not being able to get an answer with all the details as quickly as we’d like to have them and the people involved would like to have them,” Bell said. “But we recognize, I recognize, that there’s a certain due diligence that has to take place.”

Bell added that he’ll place a call to state Attorney General Roy Cooper’s office to make sure officials there appreciate the local worries and “what kind of priority it is to get things speeded up.”

City Manager Tom Bonfield said that when it comes to Riley, his understanding is that local prosecutors are awaiting the outcome of the federal sentencing before moving ahead with state charges.

He added that the lack of closure over earlier incidents can contribute to public concern about new ones.

“When another event happens, it compounds the frustration,” Bonfield said.