On a coffee table in Durham Police Chief Jose Lopez’s office, there is a chessboard with New York Yankees players on one side and Boston Red Sox players on the other. You could view those chess pieces as symbolic of the police department’s tense relationship with some factions of the Durham community—as well as some concerned citizens from out of town.
While the INDY, like readers, is interested in the status of several high-profile cases, Lopez said he could not comment on many aspects of them because the investigations by the SBI and the medical examiner have not been released.
Those cases include the shooting of a Jose Ocampo, by a DPD officer on July 27; the death of Derek Walker, who was apparently suicidal and wielding a gun when an officer shot him in CCB Plaza on Sept. 17; and the Nov. 19 death of Jesus Huerta, who, police say, shot himself in the back of Officer Samuel Duncan’s police car.
However, the INDY did ask Lopez to address some public perceptions that his office is not transparent, and that his officers showed excessive force at a Dec. 19 vigil for Huerta. He also defended the department against allegations of racial profiling that have been levied by FADE (Fostering Alternatives to Drug Enforcement).
In addition, the INDY was seeking clarification on investigation protocols and on how information is released.
This interview was conducted Monday, Jan. 13, at 9:30 a.m., before the findings of the Durham County District Attorney that concluded there was no probable cause to charge Officer Duncan criminally in the Huerta case.
INDY Week: Let’s talk about the issue of transparency; DPD has been criticized for the way information has been released and not released.
Chief Lopez: I think people have misconceptions about transparency. The reality is, you can be transparent, but you can’t be out there naked. There are some things you can’t speak to at the time because they’re not in the best interests of the investigation. You’re not responsible for the information you’re privy to and it would be inappropriate and irresponsible to comment.
So how does an investigation into officer-related shooting work?
For an officer-related shooting or an in-custody death, we bring in the SBI. We don’t have to, but we do to be fair and impartial. In these cases, you want to have someone else, an impartial group, investigate your own people.
They may use our forensics to collect some of the evidence—and some evidence might be evaluated by us—but they decide that; we don’t. We don’t touch evidence without their permission, and most of the time it’s at their direction.
What is the priority in determining which cases the SBI or medical examiner’s office tackles first?
I have no idea. In some cases it’s the noise that’s made in the community or the daily media. We’re working with the deaths in the city, not just homicide. When someone dies and the doctor doesn’t sign off on the death certificatethat person could be 95 years oldwe have to collect evidence and process the scene and the M.E.’s office gets involved.
The SBI also takes evidence to lab, which we have no control over. The body goes to the M.E.’s office, which we have no control over. The cases we have now that are waiting in the M.E.’s office, I don’t know why. I don’t know what it takes for toxicology to do their work and how many people there are to do that work. The fact of the matter is, there are a lot of cases throughout the state involving police shootings and homicide.
Then there’s an investigation conducted by our professional standards division, which is different from the SBI. Professional standards is looking for violations of policy. Our crime investigation division looks into the actual crime that occurred outside of the police shooting.
So in the case of Officer Duncan, internal affairs asks if he violated policy and procedures, which is different than violating the law?
Do rookie officers get assigned to the night shift?
Everyone works days and nights, seven days and seven nights.
Do you get updates from the medical examiner’s office? I was curious about the timing of the M.E.‘s report on Jesus Huerta. So they didn‘t tell you they were going to release it?
No, they work for the SBI, not for us. On the Huerta case, on Friday afternoon [shortly after the DPD press conference releasing an internal report] unbeknownst to us the M.E. released their report to the public. I would have loved to have seen that report beforehand, as an investigator, because if there needed to be a correction like in the Ocampo case, we need to discuss it. Because once it comes out it’s the truth.
Did you find out that Huerta shot himself through the mouth by reading it in the media?
There were things that I knew, but to release them would have been improper. I didn’t know it for a fact until the M.E.’s office released the report.
The report stated there was a warrant for his arrest on misdemeanor second-degree trespassing. Where was he that he wasn’t supposed to be?
He was somewhere else and somebody complained. This was not a police-initiated warrant. He got a letter from the warrant office and he knew he had the charge.
Give us some clarity on Huerta’s backpack. Why was there a 40-day delay between the incident and revealing its contents?
There was no delay. The officer looked into it at that point in time. Then once the investigation starts, you inventory everything and place it in the property room. We knew what we had and we were waiting for SBI to give us direction: to come pick it up or tell us what to do with it. At that time, it didn’t seem to have any relation to the death.
Now the backpack is important. And when we initially looked at laptop it didn’t come back stolen. The owner hadn’t [provided] the serial number. We wouldn’t have made it public because it didn’t have anything to do with the in-custody death. It puts a bad light on the deceased.
Some people think DPD released the information to impugn Huerta.
We didn’t release it. Whoever reported it had to go to the courthouse [to get that information]. We’re not looking to discredit the family or make their pain worse.
The public will have their truth. I feel really bad for the family. They had to undergo a public mourning. I know they want answers. I can’t imagine the pain they’re going through. I never expected them to have patience. They don’t need to have it; they’re going through too much pain for patience but I would hope those around them would help them instead of promoting a big media event. That has not fared well for the city or the family. The young man should be able to rest in peace.
On the night of Dec. 19, when the vigil went bad, was there any consideration of alternatives to the police wearing riot gear?
We knew from the information and intelligence there was a high propensity for violence and property damage. We’re trained to deal with things that I pray every day will never happen. That’s why the riot gear looked so new; we hadn’t used it.
So you ask, “Why weren’t you prepared for the other time when there was damage?” When we get protesters, we let them march. Our philosophy was not to have a police presence. But after that vigil [on Nov. 22, three days after Huerta’s death] it showed that it can and will happen.
There’s no interest in addressing the other issues in the city. Sadly we just lost a 9-year-old boy [He was killed by a stray bullet fired on Lucas Drive.] I didn’t see anybody in the street over it. There are too many kids being shot by stray bullets in a community that knows who’s shooting. Like the young man sleeping in his bed last year and a bullet went through and killed him. We need the community to help us with that. The leads are minimal. Somebody out there knows. For those who know, when they lay their heads down at night, they have to realize they could be the next one and no one will speak for them.
In the Derek Walker case, was there a CIT officer [Crisis Intervention Team] on site?
There was one out there. I can’t speak to the investigation. But we’ve had quite a few incidents that didn’t make the paper where we talked the people down. We’ve intervened in situations in schools with kids that would have been national issues.
In the Jose Ocampo case, was there a Spanish-speaking officer on site?
I believe one of the kids had to interpret. I would have to look to see. This department has a high percentage of Spanish-speaking officers and I expect them to do the best they can along the language line.
In a recent report to the Human Relations Commission there was some discussion of better communication about how a complaint against an officer is resolved. How would that work?
We have to go by the law. We can say what the outcome was—whether the complaint was sustained, unfounded, the officer was exonerated—but not the discipline. We’re capable of being wrong, and when we find that we are, we correct it. But there’s not a lot of fanfare.
It’s very easy to say it needs to be done quickly, but we have to make sure we have facts because whenever I say something publicly, I’m going to be held accountable for it.
In the Ocampo case, I had a reporter ask me, “Did he get shot in the chest?” It was one of those last-minute walking-away questions. I said. “Yes.” Because he did.
Then the M.E.’s office put out a death certificate saying he was shot in the head. And I was made out to be the big liar. Well, I knew where he was shot. He was shot in the chest—also the head. He was shot in three places. And the death certificate was wrong. [The certificate said Ocampo was shot by an officer while fleeing; Lopez said it was incorrect. The autopsy report was reportedly corrected.]
How many officers have you disciplined, a ballpark figure?
I don’t know how many, but more than any other administrator in this organization. I can easily say that. We’ve had separations from this organization; they resigned rather than get fired.
In the Stephanie Nickerson case in which a DPD officer punched her in the face, that officer resigned. Does that mean he could seek another law enforcement job and since he wasn’t fired, his assault on Nickerson would not come up on a check?
He did resign. I can’t speak to why. But everything, any investigation into an officer, now shows up now on Form 7. [A type of background check.]
You were hired from Hartford in part on your record of community policing. What is that and how does DPD deploy it?
It is a philosophy a feeling that we are working with the community together. The police and a community each has a responsibility to make a this a safer city. The quality of life has to be a lot better, and that’s basically where the community policing concept comes form. I’ve been involved in community policing since 1989, when I was hired as a community service officer. Our job was go work with community leaders—actual identified leaders and different community groups. To go in and think police can eradicate crime on their own, they can’t do it. But a community can if it wanted to.
How would a community do that?
By not accepting the criminal behavior they see. By reporting to police what they see and what they know, to the extent that sometimes it will impact their families and impact their friends. If they truly want to get rid of the drug dealer down on the corner they also may have to address their family members dealing drugs.
What are you hearing from people when you go into the community?
I’m hearing a lot of positive things all over the city. I have yet to hear from someone about how angry they are about the things they’re reading in the papers. They believe we’re doing a good job. I’m talking about people who get up in the morning and just live their lives. They see the quality of life in their neighborhood and how it’s changed.
In the communities where there is mistrust, how do you mend this? Is it possible?
We continue to meet with the community: commanders tours, crime prevention, meetings of block watchers. The majority of Durham residents trust their police department. There’s a handful that never will. They have their agenda. Our policing is not in their best interest.
It’s sad when you look at the low numbers of complaints and the only reason it could be is that people don’t want to talk to the police. They don’t believe that we’re not doing that many bad things.
As an example, the issue of racial profiling. We’re able to show it’s not happening. I think the material [documentation given by DPD to the Human Relations Commission] is quite clear. We’re using statisticians versus someone who has an intended agenda. If you ask the purpose is not racial profiling; it’s minimizing drug arrests. Who’s truly being transparent?
Lisa Sorg is the INDY Week editor. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.—>
This article appeared in print with the headline “The public will have their truth.”