N.C. City Examines Police Department Policies

The Durham Police Department has faced many vexing questions recently in the court of public opinion.


DURHAM, N.C. -- The Durham Police Department has faced many vexing questions recently in the court of public opinion, from queries about a teen who died in custody to complaints of racial profiling and accusations of excessive force.

One of those topics -- allegations of excessive force and the department's policy on when, where and how to use Taser stun guns -- has spilled over to the courts.

A recent ruling in a Taser-use case, filed by Bryan DeBaun against Officer Daniel J. Kuszaj and the city of Durham, has buoyed civil rights advocates and others fighting for more limits on the device.

The North Carolina Supreme Court issued an order on Dec. 18 that remands the DeBaun case to the N.C. Court of Appeals for reconsideration as to whether the Durham Police Department's excessive-force policy violates the state constitution.

As civil rights advocates await further action by the state's appellate court, critics of the Durham Police Department are looking for more immediate details about some of the other prickly probes.

On Monday, the Durham City Council is expected to go behind closed doors in a specially called meeting. Though there has been no public disclosure about the agenda, officials have confirmed that the meeting -- billed as calling for "attorney-client privileges" -- will include police matters.

Mayor Bill Bell also has asked for a report on the recent death of Jesus Huerta, the 17-year-old high school student found shot dead on Nov. 19 while handcuffed in the back of a police car.

That incident has sparked widespread criticism, including two demonstrations that resulted in arrests. At a Dec. 19 rally, police used tear gas to break up the crowd, raising additional questions about the department's relationship with the city.

Huerta's family and friends repeatedly have posed questions about how the teenager got a firearm, whose gun it was, and whether the fatal shot was intentional or an accident.

Those questions remain under investigation by the police and the State Bureau of Investigation as they await results of an autopsy report. But city officials are pushing for a deeper public disclosure than the one provided by Chief Jose Lopez several days after the death.

The SBI was already investigating two other Durham cases of officer-involved deaths that happened in the second half of 2013, and calls for Lopez to resign or be fired have been ramped up since the Huerta incident.

On July 27, Jose Adan Cruz Ocampo, 33, was killed by police while a suspect in a nonfatal stabbing. Derek Deandre Walker, 26, was fatally shot after pointing his gun at police in a downtown standoff Sept. 17.

2009 Taser incident

DeBaun, who was injured in the Taser incident, sued the department on July 14, 2011, nearly two years after an encounter with Kuszaj left him with a fractured jaw, broken nose and chipped teeth.

According to court documents, DeBaun was on Holloway Street in Durham in the early hours of July 24, 2009, when Kuszaj fired a Taser gun at him twice.

He was carrying a case of beer across the street when Kuszaj stopped his squad car and left the headlights on in the darkness.

DeBaun, who at 23 weighed 165 pounds and stood 5 feet 9 inches tall, was unarmed when the officer frisked him. DeBaun said he told the officer he had been drinking and was on his way home.

Kuszaj testified at a court hearing for criminal charges filed in the case that it was his intent that night to detain DeBaun "for his own protection, not to arrest him."

DeBaun recalled in a deposition for the lawsuit: "I believe he patted me down, and then was going to check my ID, but he started to put handcuffs on me, and I asked him if I was under arrest, and he said, 'No.' "

Court documents state DeBaun then tried to flee, and that's when the officer fired the Taser gun at his back.

Alex Charns, the Durham attorney representing DeBaun, stated in court documents that there was no evidence that Kuszaj ever yelled for DeBaun to stop as the department's training requires.

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