Chalk one up for body-worn cameras. “This is without question murder,” Ohio prosecutor Joseph T. Deters said at a press conference Wednesday after a grand jury indicted a University of Cincinnati campus cop for the July 19 slaying of an unarmed black man.
The victim, Sam DuBose, was stopped for a traffic violation that Mr. Deters is calling “chicken crap.” The officer, Ray Tensing, has been fired.
“It was a senseless, asinine shooting,” Mr. Deters said at the news conference, as he used stark terms to denounce the killing. The prosecutor released the video which clearly showed that Mr. Dubose did not act aggressively or pose a threat to Officer Tensing, and that Officer Tensing had lied about being dragged by Mr. Dubose’s car.
“This doesn’t happen in the United States, OK?” he said. “This might happen in Afghanistan. People don’t get shot for a traffic stop.” “This office has probably reviewed 100 police shootings, and this is the first time we’ve thought, ‘This is without question a murder,’ ” he said.
At the news conference the prosecutor said that this is the first time a law enforcement officer in Hamilton County, Ohio, where Cincinnati is the county seat, had ever before been indicted on murder charges for use of force while on duty.
Mr. Deters told the media that Officer Tensing “should never have been a police officer,” but he declined to elaborate.
Mr. Deters indicated that he thought Officer Tensing, all of 25, had tried to mislead investigators. Mr. Deters said, “Yeah, yes, I think he was making an excuse for the purposeful killing of another person.” Mr. Deters added, “I think he lost his temper because Mr. Dubose wouldn’t get out of his car.”
The video shows Officer Tensing asking repeatedly for Mr. Dubose to produce his driver’s license, which he was unable to find. The officer asks Dubose about objects on the floor of his car, and Dubose picks up an unopened pint bottle of alcohol and hands it to the officer for inspection.
Like many incidents, the situation rapidly escalates. Mr. Dubose does not appear to make any violent or threatening moves toward the officer. For reasons that are not clear, a matter of minutes into the incidents, Officer Tensing pulls out his service weapon and fires one shot into Dubose’s head. The car rolls away, and Tensing runs down the road after it.
“I think he lost his temper because Mr. Dubose wouldn’t get out of his car,” Prosecutor Deters stated on Wednesday. “When you see [the video] you will not believe how quickly he pulls his gun and shoots him in the head. It’s maybe a second. It’s incredible. So senseless. I feel so sorry for his family and I feel sorry for the community… This should not have happened.”
The city was bracing for protests or riots after the release of the footage. However, the protests were reported to be peaceful.
Mr. Tensing was taken into police custody shortly after the indictment was announced, and he is due to appear in court on Thursday. University of Cincinnati President Santa Ono confirmed Tensing has been fired, and that the school is currently reviewing its police department and policies.
Analysis: Cameras Are Changing the Way These Incidents Are Seen and Handled
The death of Mr. Dubose, a black man, at the hands of Officer Tensing, a white police officer, becomes the latest in a string of recent cases including those in Ferguson, Staten Island, Cleveland, North Charleston and Baltimore. All of these incidents, among others, have raised hard questions about law enforcement’s use of force and the role of race in policing.
This is yet another in a string of officer involved shootings of unarmed black men. But things are starting to change. Unlike in Ferguson, most of the recent episodes, including the nonlethal encounter that resulted in the arrest of Sandra Bland, have been recorded on video and therefore prosecutors and the public have been able to analyze them and see evidence of the confrontations that often contradict the accounts of those involved.
Unlike some of the other incidents, however, the death of Samuel Dubose was caught on a body-worn camera. That means that the officer perpetrated this act knowing that it was being filmed.
In the wake of these incidents, police departments have either implemented or, in the case in Davis, are in the process of implementing policies for body-worn cameras. While there is a hope these cameras might serve as a deterrent, the larger hope is that they will accurately capture the incidents – what leads to the escalation and who is to blame.
As the New York Times reports today, “Raw video has thoroughly shaken American policing. Grainy images of questionable police behavior, spread through social media, have led to nationwide protests, federal investigations and changes in policy and attitudes on race.”
“A lot of white people are truly shocked by what these videos depict; I know very few African-Americans who are surprised,” said Paul D. Butler, a law professor at Georgetown University and a former prosecutor. “The videos are smoking-gun evidence,” he added, “both literally because they are very graphic, which generates outrage, and figuratively, because people believe their own eyes.”
Something else has changed. In the early incidents, the officers involved in the killings of Michael Brown, Eric Garner and Tamir Rice (to date) have not been indicted and charged with murder. But that is changing.
When Walter Scott was shot and killed by white officer Michael T. Slager, he concocted a cover story that appeared to hold until a bystander released the video of the shooting showing Mr. Slager firing eight times as Mr. Scott fled on foot.
In Baltimore, Freddie Gray was chased and restrained by police officers, and suffered a spinal injury while in their custody. He died a week later. The six officers involved in his arrest were charged with crimes that included murder and manslaughter.
Now Samuel Dubose on July 19 became the latest casualty, and Officer Tensing the latest to be indicted based on body camera video.
It has been nearly 25 years since Rodney King’s beating was captured on a handheld video camera, almost by accident. The police were able to avoid conviction as the video was incomplete, but that acquittal was costly, resulting in several days of rioting in Los Angeles in 1992.
It is quite possible that in the future every encounter will be captured from multiple angles and multiple cameras, and then at least we can determine what happened and who is at fault. As the lesson of Samuel Dubose suggests, it may not deter conduct that happens in the heat of the moment.
—David M. Greenwald reporting