Seventeen-year-old Jesus Huerta was in the back seat of a police vehicle when he died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound Nov. 19. His death provoked an impassioned reaction from the Durham community—over 150 people gathered in downtown Durham, citing their frustration regarding the lack of information provided about Huerta's death.
As the demonstrators made their way to the Durham Police Department, masked protestors interrupted the non-violent demonstration and began to vandalize police property, causing the police to intervene.
These protests make the rising tension between the Durham community and the Durham police department vividly clear. Regardless of what the exact details of Huerta’s death are, the young man should not have been shot while in police custody. Huerta was apprehended for second-degree trespassing, which is the lowest level misdemeanor, and is now dead. Police procedure dictates that officers remove weapons at the time of an arrest. And yet, a minor was shot and killed in the back seat of a patrol car. This is completely unacceptable.
Police officers have a responsibility to keep Durham residents safe and must, inevitably, work under serious pressure to protect lives. But we cannot afford for the police to make more mistakes, especially if those mistakes lead to the loss of a life.
The police department commands authority in Durham and needs to adhere to a high standard of conduct. For this reason, it is imperative that the department is held accountable for the death of a minor in their custody.
Moreover, we should not write off the concerns of the demonstrators simply because a few vandals disrupted the protests. The protesters' frustrations are legitimate and justified. They shed light on a serious tension between Durham residents and Durham police that needs to be addressed. The City has an obligation to find out how it can better serve its residents, and this starts with hearing community concerns.
As for Duke students, it is important for us to remain conscious of what is going on in the Durham community. Duke University has a strong relationship with the Durham Police Department, and, as students, we belong to the class of people who are most protected in Durham. There are many in the community who do not feel as protected as we do, and we need to remain aware of these imbalances in power and privilege.
The discrepancy in police protection divides us further from the Durham community and makes it easy to dismiss their concerns as separate from our own. But we also live in Durham, and these events, even when they feel removed from our daily lives, affect us too.