City probing alleged comment about lawyer
Administrators are looking into whether Police Chief Jose Lopez told colleagues a defense lawyer deserved to get shot because of his profession, City Manager Tom Bonfield says.
Bonfield confirmed the review on Thursday, hours after the public defenders for Durham, Orange and Chatham counties wrote city officials to ask for an investigation.
But it had already been “underway for some time” and could be complete by Tuesday, Bonfield said.
In asking for a probe, Durham Public Defender Lawrence Campbell and Orange/Chatham Public Defender James E. Williams Jr. were reacting to a claim a Durham assistant police chief, Winslow Forbes, made in a recent equal-employment-opportunity complaint against the city.
Forbes alleged Lopez made the comment July 2. Forbes said that he reported it to Bonfield on July 16.
The comment supposedly pertained to a private-practice lawyer injured in a late-June shooting that happened on Gray Avenue. Detectives said he was an innocent bystander.
The lawyer -- like other members of the local bar -- sometimes represents indigent defendants as a court-appointed attorney.
Forbes told the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission that Lopez disparaged the lawyer as he prepared for a news conference officials called to address the spate of shootings that happened in the early summer.
By Forbes’ account, the chief told subordinates he intended to say all the recent shooting victims were black and had been involved in criminal activity.
A different assistant chief pointed out that the lawyer had not been involved in criminal activity; Lopez responded “by saying the lawyer deserved to get shot because he was a public defender,” Forbes claimed.
The alleged comment drew criticism on Aug. 16 from Forbes’ lawyer, Caitlyn Thomson. Campbell and Williams voiced similar concerns Thursday in their messages to city officials.
Campbell said comments like those attributed to the chief “cannot be justified in any context.”
“I would expect that Chief Lopez’s actions are being investigated by those persons charged with oversight of the chief and the Durham Police Department,” he said in an email to Mayor Bill Bell and City Attorney Patrick Baker.
Williams via a letter said the allegation if true would show “extreme callousness toward an innocent crime victim” and disrespect for the U.S. Constitution.
Criminal-defense lawyers “protect all citizens from potential police misconduct or prosecutorial misconduct,” Williams said. “They are an integral part of our system of checks and balances on government authority. A remark such as that alleged to have been made by Chief Lopez is unacceptable and should be thoroughly investigated.”
Also weighing in via letter on Wednesday was Jennifer Harjo, public defender for New Hanover County and president of the N.C. Public Defender Association.
She said “any lack of respect for criminal defense attorneys [or] public defenders is not only unwarranted but demonstrates an ignorance of our duties, obligation and profession.”
Campbell’s email sparked a message to Bonfield from Bell. The mayor said he wishes “that we could get some clarity” about the comment attributed to the chief.
“I am beginning to hear it repeated too many times and it can begin to take on a life of its own,” Bell told the manager. “If the statement was not made, I would at least like [to] know.”
Bonfield concurred. “We are working with [Baker] on a statement to be made,” he said in a return email to the mayor.
In an interview, Bonfield said the review is being conducted by “a combination of people, including myself.” He added that the city attorney’s and city auditor’s offices are also involved.
Baker late Thursday afternoon released a letter he wrote to Harjo that said officials are looking into “all the allegations” in Forbes’ complaint.
“If at the conclusion of our review we determine the allegations to be true, the city will take all necessary steps to address the situation,” Baker told Harjo. “If the allegations turn out not to be true or cannot be substantiated, the city will vigorously defend itself and its employees.”
Forbes filed his EEOC complaint in reaction to being passed over this spring for a promotion to deputy chief. He alleges Lopez retaliated against him for having complained about the treatment in the department of black officers.