Letter from Steve Schewel re: last week’s protest

Steve is sending this to folks who have emailed him over the past few days, and asked that it be shared with anyone interested.

Steve Schewel

A Response Regarding Recent Police Actions

Many people have written me expressing shock and dismay after the demonstration and police response in downtown Durham on Thursday night, December 19. This comes on top of other recent controversies swirling around the police department. I have been thinking about and working steadily on these police-related issues for weeks, and I wanted to send a considered response to each of you who has written to me.

            I do want to thank you for caring enough to write. Hearing your thoughts and feelings has been crucial to me as I work through the various issues that face us.

            Everything that happened last Thursday occurred against the background of a family’s grief. Whatever else we do, we need to remember that. Our community grieves with this family for the loss of their son and brother, Jesus Huerta. Their loss diminishes us all. Three weeks ago, I knocked on the door of the apartment that I understood to be the home of the Huerta family. I wanted to offer my condolences, to make a human connection from the City, to ask them how I could help. I went back several times and did not find them home, so I called their attorney to ask him to arrange a time that I could meet with the family. I am hopeful that he will do this soon. My son, like Jesus Huerta, was a student at Riverside High. I coached soccer at Riverside for years, and I coached many young people like Jesus. My heart goes out to this family.

            Now here are my thoughts on what happened on the night of December 19:

            First, this is a scene that must never be repeated in Durham again. We, as City government and as a community, must do all in our power to prevent that. Protestors must be able to exercise their First Amendment rights to speech and assembly unimpeded. The relatively few people in the Thursday-night crowd who wanted to provoke the police must be isolated so that any demonstration is peaceful. And we must work with our police force so that they use the minimum required force to keep the peace and protect public safety. The force must be proportional to the situation.

            For sure, there were people in the crowd on that night whose stated intention it was to confront the police. Their words, which you can find in their leaflets or all over the Internet, are filled with hatred towards police, including one recent post saying that “violence against the police can be justified and desirable.” These are just words, but these words were backed up by the violence last month at the police station and again by the rock-throwing on Thursday night. I want to be clear that these actions contributed mightily to the confrontation on December 19.

            But I want to be equally clear that this provocation cannot be met by the kind of massive response of the police on Thursday night. This is not a law enforcement strategy that can succeed long-term, and it is not the kind of response that Durham wants. The police response was well intentioned. Instead of swinging night sticks at people, the police used first smoke and subsequently tear gas to disperse the crowd. This meant that no one got badly hurt, which was a real achievement. But it also meant that innocent people were terrified and sent reeling through our streets. I am deeply sympathetic to the police officers who reasonably fear people who advertise openly that they want to hurt the police. However, the kind of response Durham witnessed on Thursday night is not something that can be repeated.

            So what should our community do? There is another vigil planned in a month, and the folks planning that vigil have every right to do so. We must use that month to prepare as a community and a City government to get it right this time.

            I think we need three things: Truth, justice and reconciliation.

            First, about truth. The entire truth about the death of Jesus Huerta must be known as quickly as humanly possible. Our police force has been waiting on the SBI’s independent investigation, and this was reasonable. However, the SBI is swamped with cases and grossly underfunded by the legislature, and they can’t turn around cases as quickly as we need them to. Whatever information is known from our police department’s own internal investigation should be released now. I spoke about this at length at the City Council meeting three days before the December 19 demonstration, and I continue to advocate for this.

            Second, about justice. Once we know the truth about this tragedy, we must let the chips fall where they may. We do have some definitive information from the SBI. That includes the fact that residue from the gunshot that killed Jesus Huerta was found on both of his gloves and none of that residue was on the hands of the Durham police officer. I know only the same evidence that you read in the newspaper. As hard as it is to believe given the fact that he was handcuffed, all the evidence that I have heard points to the fact that Jesus Huerta shot himself. If so, this means that there was a gun that he could reach while handcuffed in the back seat of the police cruiser. If this gun was in his possession when he was taken into custody, it is clear that the police officer failed to adequately frisk him and so unwittingly contributed to this terrible tragedy. If the police officer was at fault, he should be appropriately disciplined. From what I can tell so far, it does not appear that the young police officer was intentionally doing anything wrong in this situation but he rather made a very tragic mistake. Without knowing more, it’s impossible to say exactly what the consequences for him should be.

            Third, about reconciliation. Personally, I want to continue to reach out to the Huerta family. If they have needs that our community can fulfill, I want to help them with that. I hope that I will be able to meet them very soon, either through the avenue of their attorney or otherwise. Nothing we do can bring back their beloved child. But we can offer to help in other ways. At the same time, our police leadership should be reaching out to the community to listen and to reassure people that they respect the rights of speech and assembly and will protect them, and that they will use minimum appropriate force in the future. There is a role for peaceful demonstrators as well, and it is a critical one. I have been in hundreds of demonstrations in my life. I was at one last month on behalf of raising the wages of fast food workers. I spoke at one last week on behalf of in-state tuition for undocumented college students. This past year I was arrested and handcuffed during a Moral Monday demonstration. My experience tells me that peaceful demonstrators have the ability and the obligation to isolate and actively repudiate the violent, provocative people in their midst.

            Peace-making before and during the next vigil is going to have to be a two-way street. The police need to carefully measure their response and minimize its impact on peaceful demonstrators, no matter how verbally provocative. At the same time, it is incumbent upon demonstrators to reach out as well and to isolate and repudiate anyone who advocates violence, who throws rocks, or who seeks to instigate a confrontation with police.

            Durham is served by 515 uniformed officers, and our police force does an excellent job under incredibly difficult circumstances. Three weeks ago, I did a ride-along on a Saturday night with one of those young officers. Some of the night was spent responding to crime scenes, but most of it was spent helping people in the community—pushing a stalled car into a parking lot, helping someone try to stop harassing phone calls, responding to a call about a child found in the middle of the street after dark. On one occasion the officer was in potential danger, but he handled every situation he met with courage, wisdom and restraint.

Our police force is filled with men and women like this who are out there keeping us safe every night. Our community regards our police officers as friends and protectors, and they want more, not less, policing in their neighborhoods. That is what I hear continually from our neighborhood groups across the city. These police officers need and deserve our support.

At the same time, there are serious issues beyond the case of Jesus Huerta that need the attention of the police force, the city council and our community. There are the cases of Derek Walker and Jose Ocampo which also await the results of the absurdly slow SBI probe. As in the Huerta case, we need to get all the information out as soon as we have it.

Also, local groups have come forward with statistics about traffic stops and searches that give me grave concern. We need to make sure that there is not a hint of racial discrimination in the work of our police department. I am grateful to those who have compiled the statistics that have started a painful but useful public conversation about the critical issue of discrimination. I have been impressed by the good work of the police department in responding so fully and carefully to these statistics, and I thank Mayor Bell for starting us on a good process centered now at the Human Relations Commission and soon coming to us at the city council. We’ve got to face any charges about bias or police misconduct with an open ear and an open heart. Let’s look for solutions, for changes in our processes that can help us improve. Our department has already fully embarked upon this work. I commend them, and I know we can succeed.

            Some of you have written me about the future of Chief Jose Lopez. Chief Lopez works for City Manager Tom Bonfield, not for the city council. I have total and complete confidence in Tom Bonfield to evaluate the performance of the chief and to make the right decisions.

            Again, thank you so much for writing to me and to my colleagues. I value your ideas and opinions tremendously. Please write again.

            In the meantime, let us keep the Huerta family in our hearts. I pledge that I will continue to think hard and work hard on this issue and to advance the program of truth, justice and reconciliation that I described above. I hope you will, too.

Letter from Steve Schewel re: last week’s protest

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