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Vigil for teen who died in police custody turns violent

Investigation Magnifying Glass

(CNN) — A vigil for a teen who died in police custody turned violent in Durham, North Carolina, with riot police using tear gas and batons to disperse the crowd.

At least six people were arrested at the Thursday night march to protest the death of 17-year-old Jesus Huerta, according to police.

“I could not be more proud of the restraint and professionalism demonstrated by our officers,” Durham Police Chief Jose Lopez said in a statement to the media, adding that injuries to those marching were minimized because of his officers’ actions.

“There was a march. The peaceful intent did not exist. We used the best practices in law enforcement,” he said at a news conference Friday.

Huerta’s sister, Evelin Huerta, said a federal investigation is needed.

“The actions of the Durham Police Department, led by Chief Lopez, last night were a tried-and-true tactic to intimidate and spread fear in our community,” she said. “We call on Chief Lopez to resign immediately in light of his leadership that put dozens of armed police on the streets to scare residents and turned a memorial vigil into a war zone last night. We will not be intimidated by Chief Lopez and the Durham Police Department’s tactics.”

Protesters threw bottles and rocks at police officers and vandalized police property, Lopez said, defending his officers’ reaction to the vigil.

The Durham Police Department says Huerta died on November 19 from a self-inflicted gunshot while handcuffed in the back of a police cruiser. The teen was being taken to the police station by Officer Samuel Duncan about 3 a.m. for a second-degree trespassing violation.

The chief said at the news conference that gunshot residue tests were conducted on Huerta and the arresting officer, and the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation “found that Huerta was wearing gloves and that his gloves had a saturation of gunshot residue on it. Officer Duncan’s revealed that he had no gunshot residue on his hands,” Lopez said.

The gun used was not a police firearm, Lopez has said in the past, but state authorities are still investigating where the weapon came from, according to local media. Duncan is on paid administrative leave pending the investigation’s conclusion, local media reported.

Huerta’s family, along with local activists, allege police foul play in the death of Huerta, who was affectionately called “Chuy” by his loved ones. Huerta’s family has submitted a formal petition to local authorities for archives into the investigation, according to local media.

“People can see that we actually support him and that we need justice for Durham because it’s not fair that this is happening, like the police is not giving us answers,” Evelin Huerta told CNN affiliate WTVD.

A separate vigil held last month by the family also turned violent and ended in arrests. The family has said it plans to hold a protest on the 19th of every month.

“Personally, I don’t believe one word of what the Durham Police Department has stated,” local activist Lamont Lilly wrote in an article published shortly after Huerta’s death. “It seems to me, and many others throughout the city, Durham police officers are simply covering their tracks with a concocted story that makes no physical or logical sense whatsoever.”

Between 150 and 200 Huerta supporters marched Thursday from Durham City Hall to the parking lot of police headquarters. Some carried banners that read, “Fue Matado Por La Policia” or “Murdered By Police.”

Others in attendance alleged police brutality and the use of excessive force by officers at the vigil.

“They didn’t really look like batons or night sticks, but they were thinner and longer and they were reaching over the banner, whacking people with them,” protester David Kaplan told CNN affiliate WTVD. “They were clearly upset with the fact that people were out expressing themselves and upset at the fact that it appears they murdered a 17-year-old child.”

At least one demonstrator suffered minor injuries, and no officers were injured, the police chief said.

In a prepared statement, police said, “Permits are required for such events, but police officials extended compassion to the family by allowing the event. Police officers made several efforts to contact event organizers to ensure a peaceful event, but event organizers refused to speak with the police. The march became violent after participants left police headquarters and returned to downtown.”

Images from the scene showed smoke billowing as riot police launched tear gas at the crowd. Some demonstrators wore masks to cover their faces.

“WTH Durham police? #racerelations,” Monique Vasquez said in a tweet about the clashes. She told CNN her office was near Thursday night’s incident.

Responding to Spanish-language reporters at the news conference, Lopez said that as a Hispanic, he had trouble believing the allegations among the Hispanic community that Durham police unfairly target Latinos.

The North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation has looked into three deaths in five months involving Durham police officers, and two of those killed were Latinos, according to CNN affiliate WRAL.

A similar case in July stoked skepticism in Jonesboro, Arkansas, when Chavis Carter, 21, died from a close-range gunshot while handcuffed in the back of a police car.