About 150 protesters took to the streets in Durham, North Carolina, following the death of teenager Jesus Huerta, who was cuffed behind his back when the teenager shot himself in the head, according to police.
Relatives of Huerta had hoped for a peaceful vigil on Thursday, but supporters gathered in the center of town to light fire crackers, and according to the Raleigh News & Observer, a protester threw at least one bottle at police. Heavily armed police countered by launching canisters of tear gas into the crowd and arresting at least one person.
Launching tear gas canisters is an incredibly dangerous crowd dispersal technique, even though law enforcement has traditionally touted the strategy as non-lethal. In October 2011, 24-year-old former Marine and Iraq War veteran Scott Olsen was nearly killed by police in Oakland when authorities fired what protesters believed to be a tear gas or smoke canister that fractured Olsen’s skull.
Huerta’s bizarre death occured on November 19 after officer Samuel Duncan arrested the teen for trespassing. It was then that Duncan cuffed the teen’s hands behind his back and placed him into the patrol car. Somehow, according to police Chief Jose Lopez, the teen then managed to pull out a gun and shoot himself in the back of the head.
“I know that it is hard for people not in law enforcement to understand how someone could be capable of shooting themselves while handcuffed behind the back,” Lopez said in a statement. “While incidents like this are not common, they unfortunately have happened in other jurisdictions in the past.”
Lopez is right that handcuffed young man have shot themselves in other jurisdictions. In fact, it’s a bit of a disturbing trend.
Twice in six months, young men managed to shoot themselves in the head last year while in the handcuffs in the back of police cars, after having been searched for weapons. In August 2012, police in Jonesboro, Arkansas, claimed that Chavis Carter, 21, committed suicide while in the back of the patrol car. Carter was handcuffed at the time and had already been searched for weapons. But somehow during the search police missed Carter’s concealed handgun, and the teen, who was found to be on amphetamines and sedatives at the time, reached around his back to shoot himself in the right side of his head, despite being left-handed.
In December 2012, police again managed to overlook a very large gun when searching a high schooler who was being detained by police after a friend reported him as a suicide risk.
“As he was searched and handcuffed and put in the back for his protection, and he was being transported to a facility where he could be taken care of, he managed to retrieve a hidden gun and shot himself,” said Jonathan Frey, a school district spokesman.
The deputy constable who took him into custody searched him but overlooked the weapon, Galena Park ISD officials said.
“I know he was searched,” Frey said. “He may have had it hidden really well. All I know is that when he was in police custody, in the back of car with handcuffs on, he somehow managed to retrieve, apparently, a hidden gun and shoot himself.”
Huerta’s family remains skeptical about the police department’s official statement.
In a press release, the family asks: “How did Jesús end up dead in the parking lot at police headquarters in these circumstances? Searched. Handcuffed behind the back. How is it even possible to shoot oneself?”
Evelin Huerta, Jesus’ sister, issues a statement calling on Lopez to resign over the incident:
“The actions of the Durham Police Department last night, led by Chief Lopez, were a tried and true tactic to intimidate and spread fear into our community,” she said. “The Durham Police cannot be trusted to investigate my brother’s death, and we need a federal investigation.”