DURHAM: Chief Lopez defends police action at march - WJBF-TV ABC 6 Augusta-Aiken News, Weather, Sports

Durham chief defends police action; family says questions remain

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Durham Police on Thursday, Dec. 19 Durham Police on Thursday, Dec. 19
Jesus Huerta's family speaks to the media Jesus Huerta's family speaks to the media
DURHAM, N.C. -
Durham Police Chief Jose Lopez defended his department's response to a protest held in the city Thursday night in a news conference held Friday morning, and his comments brought a blistering response from Huerta's family later in the day.

Lopez said a review by the State Bureau of Investigation showed that 17-year-old Jesus Huerta, who died in police custody in November, had gun shot residue on gloves he was wearing at the time. Officer Samuel Duncan was transporting Huerta in a police cruiser when a gun went off.

Lopez had previously said Huerta was handcuffed from behind at the time. Lopez had said Huerta had been searched, and police were not sure how he had a weapon.

Huerta's family held a news conference at Durham City Hall. Huerta's sister, Evelin Huerta, had harsh words for Lopez and the Durham Police, saying, "We don't trust Chief Lopez. We don't trust the police at this moment."

"My brother's death is still a mystery," she said. "Every time Chief Lopez says something it brings out more questions."

She said Jesus was a "great uncle to our kids. There was no day she would not come out with a smile."

Another family member repeated a concern from the family, which is how Jesus Huerta got a gun in the back of the car.

"Nobody deserves to die in the back seat of a police car," the family spokeswoman said.

Other speakers at the press conference questioned the use of force on Thursday night. Community activist Serena Sebring, for example, talked about how the police had a strong show of force and emphasized, "They gassed us all."

The family said "no comment" when asked what they wanted from Lopez. But in a statement, the sister called for Lopez to resign.

"The actions of the Durham Police Department last night, led by Chief Lopez, were a tried and true tactic to intimidate and spread fear in our community," she said in the statement. "The Durham Police cannot be trusted to investigate my brother's death, and we need a federal investigation. We call on Chief Lopez to resign immediately in light of his leadership that put dozens of armed police on the streets to scare residents and turned a memorial vigil into a war zone last night."

On Friday, Lopez said an SBI report exonerated his officer by saying that the investigation did not show gun residue on the hand of the Durham police officer but there was gun residue on the glove of Huerta, indicating that Huerta had used a firearm.

Lopez said Huerta's glove "had a saturation of gun shot residue." He said the SBI investigation showed Duncan did not have any gun shot residue on his hands.

Lopez said he wasn't sure why Huerta was wearing gloves, and that Durham Police "don't necessarily take off apparel unless we think it presents a danger."

Exactly how Huerta died is an issue that has galvanized many in the Durham community, with Huerta's family asking for more answers.

Lopez said the Durham Police tried to reach out to the Huerta family before Thursday's event but was unsuccessful. The protest that followed Thursday night had a sharp edge to it, and
Lopez said many in the crowd "did not have peaceful intent."

But he repeatedly defended police actions, saying his officers followed procedure and minimized any injuries and damage Thursday night.

"We were able to properly address the individuals who came with a negative intent," he said.

He said police saw protesters approaching with book bags and having picked up rocks. Some of the protesters, he said, were wearing masks.

He defended the fact that police were lined up in riot gear, and said that did not incite the crowd. He said the police in riot gear were not initially visible to the marchers.

Police made arrests after tear gas was used to disperse the crowd. Lopez said Friday there were six arrests.

The crowd originally marched to the back of police headquarters and was then ordered to disperse. They returned to the plaza in downtown Durham and, Lopez said, "some vandalism began to occur." At that point, Lopez said, rocks and bottles were thrown at officers.

"We used the best practices in law enforcement to take the violence (out) and insure the safety of everyone," Lopez said.

Mayor Bill Bell said Friday that he wants to go ahead and release an independent police investigation.

"The next question is the gun," Bell said. "I don't know whose gun it was, where it was found. Why was it in the police car? That's the type of information the public wants to make this complete."

On Thursday night, Lopez said, "Some arrests were made and officers were forced to deploy teargas to disperse the crowd after rocks and bottles were thrown at the police. Although this was billed as a peaceful event, several participants donned masks, committed vandalism, assaulted officers and failed to heed commands to disperse."

The march was planned to be a peaceful demonstration in remembrance of the teen who died after being picked up Nov. 19 on an outstanding second-degree trespassing charge.

"No violence because his family got mad about that," said Brandon Moreno, a friend of Jesus Huerta.

Family and friends of Huerta gathered at 7 p.m. at the Bull Statue at CCB Plaza and then marched to Durham Police headquarters holding signs and candles.

The crowd was greeted by a line of Durham officers in full riot gear at the headquarters. Some protesters could be heard yelling expletives at the police.  

The crowd began to move away from police headquarters around 8 p.m. after officers said demonstrators could be arrested for unlawful assembly.

The march became disruptive after marchers left police headquarters and returned to downtown.

Police used tear gas to disperse protesters who lingered following repeated requests to leave the area. The tear gas was deployed after officers were hit with bottles and other objects, police said.

"Thanksgiving passed and it was the most horrible day of my life that my brother wasn't here.  It wasn't just for me.  It was for my whole family," said Evelin Huerta, Jesus Huerta's sister.

A rally on Nov. 22 became disorderly when participants threw road flares and firecrackers, damaged a police car and broke windows at Durham Police Headquarters.

WNCN's Steve Sbraccia contributed to this report.

Read moreDurham demonstration protesting teen's death turns destructive

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