Durham Chief Lopez defends performance, explains Huerta text

jesus huerta

See more photos of Huerta and the backlash

DURHAM, N.C. (WNCN) – Durham Police Chief Jose Lopez defended his actions on the night of Jesus Huerta’s death and the performance of his department overall in an interview Thursday with WNCN.

Text messages between Durham’s chief of police and city manager show that a 17-year-old in police custody was “not searched well” before dying of a self-inflicted gunshot wound in the back of a police car.

Huerta died Nov. 19 from a gunshot wound through the mouth, according to the North Carolina Office of the Chief Medical Examiner. Police said Huerta was handcuffed in the backseat of a police cruiser when he shot himself.

On the morning of the incident, Durham Police Chief Jose Lopez and City Manager Tom Bonfield exchanged text messages about what happened.

Lopez, in a text, told Bonfield, “17 yr old male was arrested , but not searched well and had a gun concealed, shot himself in back of police car while at the rear of police headquarters. He has died.”

Bonfield replies and asks Lopez, “What do we know about him and what he was arrested for? Is SBI investigating?

Lopez informs Bonfield that Huerta was arrested for trespassing and that the teenager was handcuffed behind his back and appeared to have drawn a gun.

Asked directly about the text by WNCN, Lopez said Thursday, “At 2:30 in the morning, 3:30 in the morning, whatever time it was that I put that text out, making a presumption as far as what had occurred, and it’s extremely preliminary, no true facts that I believed were going through except to make the city manager aware of an incident that was going on that night and would be thoroughly investigated as has been doing.”

Durham Police said Officer Samuel Duncan had patted down Huerta and checked the police cruiser when his shift began.

The Huerta death, combined with some other high-profile incidents, has raised questions in the Durham community about the performance of the police. A march after Huerta’s death was met with tear gas, and Huerta’s family has called on Lopez to resign.

But Lopez said he is proud of the work the police are doing.

“As far as I’m concerned, the city of Durham is a beautiful city. It’s got a lot of very good, supportive people here,” he said. “I think this organization is moving forward. If you look at the year 2013, aside from this case, you’ll notice that the organization moved forward in very many ways.

“It’s extremely accredited. It’s gotten different awards. And, it also has gone out to different organizations and cities in order to promote and show them what it is we do in this city. So, I’m very proud of this organization. I’m also proud of the city I work with and proud of the citizens that are out there supporting us.”

Asked directly if he planned to remain as police chief, Lopez said, “I’ve not yet had anybody walk up to me as I go about the city asking me to leave.”

He said of the city manager, “I’ll be working with him in reference to it.”

Earlier this week, Durham District Attorney Leon Stanback said that no charges would be filed in the case involving the death of Huerta.

The police department’s internal investigation is ongoing. Bonfield released a statement earlier this week saying, “I am calling on the Police Department to complete its Internal Affairs Report as quickly as possible, and will continue to correspond with City Council to determine what aspects of the IA Report should be made public to maintain confidence and trust in the Police Department.”

The Huerta family’s attorney said this week that the SBI did not consult with the family about what they might contribute before finishing its report. The SBI issued a statement Wednesday disputing that, and adding that the SBI would meet with the family and district attorney if asked to do so.

Attorney Alex Charns said the family intends to take advantage of the SBI’s offer for agents to meet with them because they plan to “ask the SBI to follow-up.”

“It is an investigative avenue that we want pursued,” Charns said.

Charns said that he does not possess a copy of the SBI report, but they have been provided “access” to it. He said discussion are ongoing about getting a copy of the report.

A prayer vigil will be held Sunday at 6:45 p.m. at Immaculate Conception Catholic Church at 810 West Chapel Hill St. in Durham.

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