Local News

Durham officer suspended without pay for policy violations related to teen's shooting death

Posted June 23, 2014 1:43 p.m. EDT
Updated June 23, 2014 6:19 p.m. EDT

— A Durham police officer who arrested a teenager who shot himself in the head while handcuffed in the back of a patrol car violated policies regarding transporting and handling prisoners, Police Chief Jose Lopez said in a report to Durham’s city manager on Friday.

Lopez said when Officer Samuel Duncan picked up 17-year-old Jesus Huerta on the morning of Nov. 19 on a misdemeanor trespassing charge, he failed to discover the Haskell .45 caliber-semi-automatic handgun in the teen’s possession.

Duncan, who had been with the department for 16 months at the time, frisked Huerta’s pants and jacket pockets and put him in the back of the patrol car, Lopez said, but he did not find a weapon. When they arrived at Durham police headquarters, a short time later, the teen shot himself.

After separate investigations by the State Bureau of Investigation and the police department’s Professional Standards Division, Duncan received a 40-hour suspension without pay and remedial training in transporting and handling prisoners.

Durham’s district attorney announced last month that he would not pursue criminal charges in the case.

Alexander Charns, an attorney for Huerta’s family, said Monday that the family is conducting its own investigation into the teen’s death.

Charns said they believe police should have thoroughly searched Huerta before putting him in the patrol car and that Huerta, who had high levels of drugs in his system, should have been taken to a hospital before police served the warrant for his arrest.

“Our community will judge the appropriateness of the discipline imposed on the officer here, and how the discipline compares to the discipline imposed on other officers,” the family said in a statement. “We will all judge how the DPD moves forward to learn from this tragedy and whether it will take the necessary affirmative steps to prevent future in-custody deaths.”

Lopez’s report to City Manager Thomas Bonfield noted that Duncan several times told Huerta to stop moving around in the back of the police car and that he had intended to perform a more extensive search once they were at the police station.

As a result of Huerta’s case, Lopez said, all sworn officers have been required to complete a two-hour update course on conducting searches, and police officers who train recruits have been told to emphasize proper search techniques.

“We're going to do things in a different way, in a better way, and a lot of it comes from learning from our experiences,” Lopez said Monday afternoon.

Another change – stemming from a second policy violation by Duncan – involves the use of in-car video cameras. They will now turn on automatically within 30 seconds after a vehicle's engine starts running.

Lopez said Duncan did not restart the camera, which turns off if the car is idle for more than 50 minutes. Duncan’s interaction with Huerta was not recorded.

The Durham Police Department will now start providing the city manager a report about any officer-involved shooting within five business days. After Huerta’s death, there were protests in Durham from people wanting to know what happened.

Lopez said he thinks the five-day report will help with community unrest, putting as much information out in public as quickly as possible.

“I think, like anything else in this organization, it's a learning process,” Lopez said. “In the future – not to say we’re going to be perfect – but we’re hopeful not to make the same mistakes.”

The Huerta case was one of three officer-involved shootings in the report to Bonfield.

In the two other cases – the July 27, 2013, death of Jose Adan Cruz Ocampo and the Sept. 17, 2013, death of Derek Deandre Walker – internal investigations found no violations of police department policies or procedures.

Officer R.S. Mbuthia shot Ocampo, 33, after he and other officers responding to a stabbing call told him to drop a kitchen knife he had been holding. Witnesses later said Ocampo was trying to hand the knife to an officer when he was shot four times.

Walker, 26, was fatally shot by Cpl. R.C. Swartz when Walker pointed a gun at officers after an hour-long standoff at CCB Plaza in downtown Durham. Walker was distraught over losing custody of his son, relatives said.