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Durham Police Chief Jose Lopez Addresses Recent Controversies

Durham Police Chief Jose Lopez

In the last year, the Durham Police Department has faced public criticism surrounding search policies and three police-related deaths.  The NAACP of North Carolina questioned the police actions in the case of Jesus Huerta, a 17 year-old who died in police custody.

Advocacy organizations like the Southern Coalition for Social Justice and Fostering Alternative Drug Enforcement (FADE) have raised accusations of racial profiling.

The department maintains that racial discrepancies in crime statistics do not indicate discrimination. They issued a reportin response to the criticism.

In response to public outcry, the Human Relations Commission will make recommendations to the City Council for procedural reforms in police governance in May. 

Host Frank Stasio talks with Durham Police Chief Jose Lopez. 

On the Death of Jesus Huerta and Mental Health:

Citizens raised concerns about police response to Jesus Huerta, a teenager brought into custody on an outstanding trespassing warrant. He died in the back of a police car from a self-inflicted gunshot.

In his conversation with host Frank Stasio, Lopez says the public’s concerns are the product of a lack of information.

“I think the great public concern has to do a lot with the fact that we [the police] were unable to speak to it. It would've been irresponsible. They [the public] had a desire to know and then they were speculating in reference to what had occurred that day. That speculation, of course, became the news of the day and the continual news that we were hearing.”

Some of the speculation related to Huerta’s mental state. His death raised questions about how law enforcement officers interact with the mentally ill. Chief Lopez describes the current mental health training:

“It really is to help them [officers]  identify individuals who are in emotional, mental crisis when they respond to a call versus seeing them in a criminal, being someone who’s involved in and engaging in a criminal activity. Not only that, but being able to talk to them in that appropriate manner to deescalate whatever situation they’re in, whatever trauma they’re in at the time. And then at the same point in time, to report back to a follow-up group…”

Lopez points out that this training helps individuals to deal with immediate mental health situations, but says it did not apply in Huerta’s case.

"The whole situation lies in the fact that, regardless, he wasn’t acting out at that time in a mental health situation. All his issues that he had had nothing do with his being transported because there was a warrant for his arrest."

On Police Response To Protests:

At a protest and vigil in December, police employed tear gas to disperse a crowd gathered around the Huerta case. The police department said they were responding to individuals throwing rocks and bottles. Eyewitness accounts differed. Lopez explains members of anti-government groups at the event were responsible for an earlier attack on the Durham police headquarters. He explains:

"You have to understand that the first time that this occurred, where the police headquarters was physically attacked and damaged – a lot of that happened because we allowed people to protest in front of headquarters. I mean, I’ve been there for, I’m going on seven years. I had never thought that I’d need to have a police presence in a public protest."

On The Death Of Jose Ocampo:

Jose Ocampo was shot by a police officer last July after being asked to surrender a knife he was wielding. Lopez says the three officers at the scene acted in the only way that guaranteed their safety.

"If the officer is in a position where more than likely either you act or you die, then you don’t have much choice. To be honest with you, I don’t want to go to another police funeral. In my 30 plus years career, I’ve been to too many. It’s too many because the officer only died because he didn’t take the necessary action."

On Allegations of Racial Profiling:

In response to allegations of racial profiling at traffic stops, Chief Lopez questions the validity of accepted statistics.

“Those numbers are, I think, misleading as far as the percentage…The broader number of individuals who were stopped is a lot larger. The amount of people who actually were searched, is a lot smaller, so if you take the percentage, it’s off.”

Lopez also notes that police patrol more heavily in minority neighborhoods because, he says, they have higher crime rates.

"We're looking at communities who are experiencing a larger amount of crime to include robbery, to include assaults, and then to include burglaries also, to which we have to give these places special attention. And we have neighborhoods who are asking us – begging us – to be in that neighborhood in order to address these issues. As such, we go there because of the crime and the crime, quite frankly, has no color."

On Conviction Bonuses:

The department recently defended itself against allegations that it was paying informants bonuses for convictions. Lopez says the so-called “conviction bonuses” never existed and the allegation was the result of a semantic misunderstanding.

“There are no conviction bonuses. From the beginning, we’ve been able to, we’ve spoken to the prosecutor’s office. They’re well aware that this, as we’ve stated repeatedly, it was just the manner in which the individual filled out that little form that accounted for the money. But none of those cases had anything to do with them getting extra money because there was a conviction. As a matter of fact, no one was ever paid for the conviction.”

On Community Trust and Changes Ahead:

Chief Lopez expresses his belief that most Durham citizens trust local law enforcement and that a perception of mistrust is coming from special interest groups representing their own agendas. He explains:

“I think we need to ask the whole community. I don't think the whole community views it as we don't trust our police officers…These police officers need to know that we do trust their words. There’s no evidence or anything that has been shown to me or anyone else that indicates otherwise, that these police officers are out there lying.”

However, Lopez sees ways to learn from his critics, even if he doesn’t necessarily agree with their points.

"I think that the police department is changing as we go along. I’m saying that when we have these situations, we always look at what it is that we can do better, what it is that we may be doing wrong and we’re not talking about perception as much as changing policies, changing and getting new training. We take all of this that has happened to us, and this has always been and will continue to be a learning experience. And like I said before, I don't have to agree with you, but I can learn from you."

Longtime NPR correspondent Frank Stasio was named permanent host of The State of Things in June 2006. A native of Buffalo, Frank has been in radio since the age of 19. He began his public radio career at WOI in Ames, Iowa, where he was a magazine show anchor and the station's News Director.
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