Embattled Durham police chief defends actions at protest

Dec. 21, 2013 @ 12:24 AM

DURHAM — Durham's police chief is defending his agency's use of riot gear and tear gas to disperse a march protesting the recent death of a handcuffed teen in the back of a patrol car.

Chief Jose L. Lopez Sr. said Friday his officers acted appropriately Thursday night when they used force to end what had been billed as a peaceful candlelight vigil by about 200 people protesting the death of 17-year-old Jesus Huerta. Six people were arrested.

Police say Huerta shot himself in the head after he had been searched and his hands handcuffed behind his back following his Nov. 19 arrest on trespassing charges. The death is being investigated by the State Bureau of Investigation.

Huerta's family and friends are not convinced by the police department's explanation of how Huerta died.

Lopez said Friday his officers responded Thursday night after some participating in the vigil threw rocks and bottles. Protesters say police officers wearing riot gear and wielding wooden batons provoked the confrontation by marching into the crowd and ripping down a large black banner featuring Huerta's name and the phrase: "Murdered By Police."

Alex Charns, a Durham lawyer representing the Huerta family, issued a written statement criticizing the police response.

"What is the Durham police chief afraid of?" Charns said. "Why would he send riot police out against a grieving mother holding a flower and candle for her dead son? She was threatened with arrest along with the rest of the family. He sent troops in battle regalia against people holding Our Lady of Guadalupe candles and signs asking for justice."

A similar march last month ended with two people being charged after protesters damaged police headquarters and smashed the window of a police car.

In the weeks since Huerta's death, Durham police have been tight lipped about what evidence shows the teen committed suicide, including where the gun that fired the fatal shot came from.

On Friday, Lopez disclosed for the first time that forensic testing had found gunshot residue on a glove he said Huerta was wearing when he died, suggesting he had used a firearm. Similar tests on the hands of the officer driving the car in which Huerta died found no such residue, Lopez said.

Charns said Lopez's comments only add to the unanswered questions surrounding the teen's death.

"Why the continued shell game with the facts of this case by the chief?" Charns asked. "Where are the lab reports concerning the GSR tests? Where are the photographs of the gloves so the family can see them and determine if they were Jesus' gloves? ... Again, the chief asks us to trust when he provides no way for us to verify his claims."