Officers knew of Huerta drug issues

Jan. 13, 2014 @ 10:21 PM

Radio chatter from the early morning of Nov. 19 indicates the police officers who dealt with Jesus Huerta were alert to his possible drug use and involvement in property crimes.

But even though one of the officers who found him had crisis-intervention training, there was little in their transmissions to suggest worry on their part that he might have mental-health problems.

“It’s a runaway, it’s not going to be any further issue,” one officer said as he relayed to colleagues a description of the 17-year-old derived from a photograph of him.

Huerta died later that morning, handcuffed in the back of a Durham Police Department cruiser, victim of what the department’s chief and internal-affairs investigators believe was a self-inflicted gunshot wound

Police on Friday said they believe a “cursory” search of the youth failed to uncover a weapon Huerta was carrying.

Huerta’s family, through its lawyer, has disputed that, arguing the pistol “most likely” was in the back seat of the cruiser before Officer Samuel Duncan placed him there.

They also contend that officers knew Huerta’s mother wanted him involuntarily committed for mental-health and substance-abuse treatment.

The officers’ radio chatter did in fact include one such reference, but like several other relays of information from the family focused on alleged drug use.

A call to 911 from Huerta’s sister ignited the police search for him. She told a dispatcher the teen had once tried to take his own life, having problems when he “doesn’t feel that anybody loves him.”

But a follow-up question from the dispatcher put the onus on a layperson to say whether he had “any medical or mental conditions we need be aware of.”

She hesitated. “Um, not really, but he’s been using a lot of drugs,” she said. “They put him in a program. It didn’t work.”

Police responded by sending an officer to talk to Huerta’s mother and asking other officers to look for him. The search focused on the Washington Street corridor, north of the Durham Athletic Park.

From the start, some officers speculated about possible crime connections.

“Probably going to be one of the B&E kids from earlier,” one said, using police slang for breaking and entering.

Others asked what triggered the search.

“Did he get in a fight with his mom or dad, or has he got a little girlfriend around here or something? What’s going on?” one said.

They quickly learned Huerta was most likely with another teen, Jamie Perez.

“Yeah, [Huerta’s mother] came home at 9 [p.m.], she smelled weed in the house and she yelled at him,” came the response to the query about a fight. “They all went to bed. Around 1 o’clock, she heard him and the other guy in the back room, I guess his buddy, and she knocked and knocked and said, ‘I’m going to call the police if you don’t come out.’ And then she called us, right after he, I guess, left.”

Duncan, a rookie who’d just completed his training, wound up on the point of the search with veteran Officer Dakota Beck. They found Huerta and Perez at the corner of Washington Street and Trinity Avenue.

They identified Huerta from the red jacket he wore. “Yeah, we got him,” Beck radioed.

“All right, 10-4, bring him on back,” came the answer from a colleague.

But matters quickly took another turn. “Hey, it looks like [we] might have a drug, slash robbery, slash stealing-stuff issue,” one officer said.

In a search warrant released last week, a police detective said Huerta’s backpack contained jewelry and electronics, some confirmed as stolen.

A sergeant did a quick check of Huerta’s background, finding him wanted on a charge of second-degree trespassing. “Advise his parents he’s going to jail, he got a warrant on him,” came the report.

Beck – specially trained to deal with people with mental-health issues, and the department’s “crisis intervention team” officer of the year for 2012 – appears to have dealt more with Perez. She took him to the magistrate’s office as Duncan took Huerta to headquarters to pick up the warrant, the two officers first discussing the reports they’d be filing.

Another officer indicated he’d relay the “drug use and larcenies” angle to a commander. He and Duncan discussed Huerta’s detention.

“Just let his parents know he’ll be at Durham County Jail,” Duncan said.

“Oh yeah, she don’t care, she’s probably going to go get commitment papers for his drug use because she says he’s got a real problem with taking pills and smoking and stuff,” came the response. “So she’s going to try to, he went to a clinic for five days and then kept using.”

It is indeed possible under North Carolina law to have a substance abuser “dangerous to himself or others” involuntarily committed for inpatient or outpatient treatment, a 2009 paper from the UNC School of Government says.

The test for danger to self focuses on whether a person is unable to care for himself, or is a suicide risk or at risk of self-mutilation.

If a suicide risk is involved, the person committed must have attempted or threatened suicide and is deemed to have a “reasonable probability” of committing suicide unless he or she receives treatment.

A commitment request has to go through a magistrate or court clerk. Durham’s magistrates work at the jail.

The Huertas’ lawyer, Alex Charns, over the weekend said officers had received “specific warnings” about the youth’s problems and “failed to protect him under any scenario about where the gun came from.”