Kristine Kaiser: Ethnic tension flares in Huerta case

Jan. 17, 2014 @ 07:08 PM

In January of 2013, Durham Police Chief Jose L. Lopez Sr. penned an open letter to that city’s Latino community.
The chief blamed teenagers’ parents for silence about violent crimes.  Lopez wrote: “What value is a driver’s license or immigration reform if we are killing ourselves?
Many say that they are afraid to cooperate with the police or confront their children.
It took a lot of courage to come to this land, leaving your country and crossing the frontier. The time has come when it is necessary to find the courage that brought us here and use it to save our children and families.”
The letter reveals the then conflict between the police department and the city’s Latino community. The appeal has an immigrant audience in mind. Lopez says the people are “afraid” to work with police. Finally, Chief Lopez mentions only one group as being responsible for the city’s crime.
Yet, Jesus Huerta’s sister showed both courage and trust in the police department when she called 911 to report that her brother had left the house after an argument in the early morning hours of Nov. 19, 2013.
How disillusioned she must be! The 17-year-old boy died of a supposed self-inflicted gunshot wound while handcuffed from behind and in police custody. The arresting officer missed a .45-caliber handgun in a cursory search. The autopsy showed that a bullet entered Huerta’s mouth and exited his skull. Gunshot residue was on the boy’s gloves.
I am among many people who believe that the police account is unreliable. Huerta would have to be a contemporary Houdini to shoot himself in the face while his hands were restrained behind him. The police say others have done just that in other districts. Fortunately, the state attorney general’s office and the FBI are also investigating the case.
The U.S. Justice Department should also intervene and investigate Durham’s police practices when it comes to dealing with ethnic communities. Is racial profiling a big problem? Are civil rights being violated? With two protests over the Huerta case turning violent, the Durham Police Department might need some help from outside review.
The U.S. Justice Department could take into consideration that the strife between the local police department and Latino community is not so unusual, especially since the Durham Police Department once opted into the 287g program, a program that uses local police as immigration officers.
Where the 287g program has been in force, Latinos have often lived in fear of the police. Crimes have often gone unreported and cooperation between the police and the immigrant community has been nonexistent. Few take the chance of inviting ICE into their lives.
While police participation in the 287g program is on a steady decline, it is being replaced with “Secure Communities,” where local police can share an ICE database. “Secure Communities” claims to make cities safer, yet many times minor offenders are deported.
At any rate, trust suffers.
Our broken immigration policies cause great tension in Latino communities, tension that is not so easy to defuse. But the Durham Police Department can do something more in the very tragic death of Jesus Huerta. They can at least hold the arresting officer accountable for mistakes made when the boy was taken into custody. Surely, some blame is his.
Currently, Officer Samuel Duncan is now restricted to administrative duties. With no greater penalty, he hardly seems responsible. He failed to find the deadly weapon and deactivated the video recorder so there was no record of the police encounter. He should at least be suspended or otherwise reprimanded for botched procedures.
Police Chief Jose L. Lopez Sr. drives a further wedge between the police department and Latinos. He should consider resigning his post and let the Durham community heal.

Kristine Kaiser is a writer living in Kernersville. Contact her for comments at: Representations of fact and opinions are solely those of the author.