Chief seeks balance of transparency and diligence

Nov. 22, 2013 @ 10:30 PM

Police Chief Jose Lopez Sr., spurred by complaints about how long it has taken to resolve several officer-involved incidents in the past year, on Friday urged patience while assuring transparency.

In a prepared statement, Lopez said, "I fully understand my responsibility to be transparent on controversial issues and cases, particularly in light of recent officer-involved shootings.

"Not only have three lives been lost in the last few months, the credibility of the Police Department is at stake, which is something we take very seriously."

For that reason, he said, the department turns over such cases over to the State Bureau of Investigation -- by choice, rather than state mandate. He said that he wants to balance transparency with protecting the investigative process.

On Tuesday, 17-year-old Jesus Huerta died somehow in the back of Officer Samuel Duncan's patrol car outside police headquarters. An autopsy was completed, but the medical examiner's office has not yet released a report listing cause of death. 

Lopez told reporters after that incident that Huerta wasn't killed by a gun fired by a police officer -- unlike Derek Deandre Walker and Jose Adan Cruz Ocampo, who were shot by police during confrontations. Friends have insisted that Huerta wouldn't kill himself and it's not publicly known yet whether Duncan properly searched or handcuffed Huerta after picking up the teen on an old trespassing warrant.

Such issues in all these cases are under investigation by SBI and the department's professional standards division. When the SBI completes its work, Lopez said, the findings are turned over to the Durham County District Attorney's Office. But the investigations can last several months, depending on backlog at the SBI.

"Once the D.A.'s Office determines whether or not to file charges, only then is the Police Department informed of the findings," Lopez said.

Duncan remains on administrative leave with pay. "This is by no means a vacation," the chief said, "it is a time for the officer to go through a psychological assessment and de-stress." Officers only go back on duty when Lopez feels that it's appropriate, he added.

"As we wait, please know that thoughts and prayers are with the families of the victims, as well as the officers involved and their families," Lopez said. "I appreciate your patience and can assure you that once these investigations are complete, I will make a full disclosure to the public about each case."

On Friday evening, about 200 people protested near police headquarters about Huerta’s death and the department’s traffic stop practices.