Samuel Dubose's Shooting Shows How Important Police Body Cameras Can Be
Whether they can solve larger problems of racism within American cities, there's no question these recording devices can shed light on individual atrocities.
If not for the tiny camera on University of Cincinnati police officer Ray Tensing's uniform, the July 19 death of Samuel Dubose in Cincinnati would be just another racially-charged police shooting of an unarmed black man shrouded in questions.
But footage from Tensing's body camera, which UC's police department required him to wear, revealed apparent lies in Tensing's statements about Dubose's death, as well as inconsistent statements by responding UC officers David Lindenschmidt Phillip Kidd. Their misleading assertions about the incident raise larger questions about what's happening when police aren't being filmed and whether law enforcement officers should be required to wear them. The Cincinnati Police Department—a separate entity from the campus cops—has also been involved in high-profile shootings in the past, but doesn't have body cameras for all its officers.
"This is the most asinine act I've ever seen a police officer make," said Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Deters at a Wednesday press conference announcing a grand jury's decision to indict Tensing on murder and voluntary manslaughter charges. The video footage of Dubose's brutal shooting belied the cop's claim of facing mortal danger during the routine traffic stop over a missing license plate. He has pleaded not guilty and was released on $1 million bond Thursday.
Kidd and Lindenschmidt were subsequently suspended by the University of Cincinnati Police Department. A grand jury declined to indict the two on Friday, despite concern that they may have lied in the initial police report by corroborating Tensing's claims of being in harm's way.
Tensing's official story is that he followed Dubose from the corner of Vine and McMillan streets, near UC's campus. Dubose pulled over about half a mile away from campus in a lonely pocket of Cincinnati's Mount Auburn neighborhood, known locally as "the hole" for its isolation below a large hill holding the city's looming Christ Hospital. There, on a nearly empty street, Tensing approached Dubose's Honda Accord.
Tensing asked Dubose for his license, which had been suspended in January, according to the Ohio Department of Motor Vehicles. Dubose resisted providing his license or exiting his vehicle, and an altercation took place. Tensing claims his arm got stuck in the steering wheel and that Dubose began driving forward, dragging him. At that point, Tensing says, he shot Dubose once in the head. Tensing adds that he then fell to the ground, sustaining mild injuries. The car rolled for another block, then crashed.
Tensing's story recalls—a little too neatly—another incident in Cincinnati's past. In 2000, Cincinnati Police Officer Kevin Crayon was dragged to death by a car he was attempting to stop driven by a 12-year-old. Crayon shot the boy before falling under the car.
But Tensing's body camera footage shows a far different scenario. In the video, Tensing does repeatedly asks Dubose for his license, which Dubose says he doesn't have. But instead of getting belligerent, Dubose is apologetic.
"I just don't," he tells Tensing. "I'm sorry sir. I was just going to go in the house." Dubose then tells Tensing he lives right around the corner. "I didn't even do nothing," Dubose says as Tensing begins to pull his car door open.
They would be his last words. Dubose grabs the door car door with one hand and starts his car with the other. A second later, Tensing shoots him in the head. Dubose, dead instantly, is no longer holding down the brake and the car begins rolling forward. Tensing, rising to his feet, chases the car with his gun drawn.
Later in the video, Tensing describes to other officers how he was dragged by the car. Kidd, on the scene, replies, "I saw that."
A subsequent incident report repeats the lie. "Officer Kidd told me that he witnessed the Honda Accord drag Officer Tensing," wrote UC police officer Eric Wiebel in a July 21 incident report, though the footage shows Tensing was never dragged and was not in danger.
"I think he just lost his temper," Deters said of Tensing's actions on the video. The prosecutor has suggested UC's police department be disbanded and patrol of the school handed over to the city's police.
The words are shocking coming from a prosecutor, especially one with as conservative a reputation as Deters. Just weeks before, he faced major controversy for calling a group of African Americans facing charges from his office "soulless" and "irredeemable."
Deters's bold statements underline the power of the evidence in the case. For the Dubose family, that's a silver lining in the tragic death of their son, who they say was a popular music producer and entrepreneur as well as the father to ten children.
"I thank God that everything is being uncovered," Audrey Dubose, Samuel's mother, told reporters after the indictment was announced."This one did not go unsolved and hidden... My son was killed by a cop unjustly. I gotta know many more are killed unjustly. I'm going to be on the battlefield for them."
As the New York Times reports, the public's perception of police has shifted thanks to the pervasive use of recording equipment, both on police and civilian bystanders. But data to suggest that cameras lead to concrete changes is still scarce.
Last year, the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) began funding a study on police use of body cameras in Los Angeles designed to reveal the equipment's impact on crime and police-community relations.
Another study performed in 2013 by the Rialto, California, Police Department and University of Cambridge criminology professor Barack Ariel found that "shifts without cameras experienced twice as many incidents of use of force as shifts with cameras."
Police departments across the country have been slow to adopt body cameras. In a NIJ survey conducted in 2013, about 75 percent of responding departments said they did not use the devices, though several have adopted them or begun to since.
Even the regular Cincinnati Police Department, which has been lauded by experts and national media for its police reforms, has yet to fully adopt the technology.
The reticence to use body cameras comes despite transparency efforts in the department underway since the 2001 police shooting death of an unarmed black man named Timothy Thomas, which led to widespread civil unrest in the city and federally-enforced changes to the CPD. The city's police force began a pilot program testing body cameras last year.
Of course, evidence like that in the Dubose case would have been useful in many other police-involved deaths, including the August 9, 2014 killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson. That shooting by Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson sparked national outrage around police killings, including weeks of civil unrest in Ferguson.
Since Brown's death, other police killings, including that of Walter Scott in North Charleston, South Carolina, in April, have stoked further outrage. In that incident, video recordings made by a bystander revealed a story that differed dramatically from statements given by officers and Scott's killer, former officer Michael T. Slager, was indicted for murder in June. Slager claimed that Scott had taken his Taser and posed a threat to him. Video showed Slager shooting Scott in the back eight times as he fled from the cop.
Some are quick to point out that body cameras aren't the whole answer and don't address deeper racial issues inherent in many high-profile police shootings. Body camera skeptics across the country tend to argue that overly aggressive policing is common in neighborhoods like the one in Mount Auburn, which is 76 percent black and has a median household income of about $16,000.
The underlying socioeconomic challenges inherent in many black neighborhoods patrolled heavily by police contribute to the disproportionate presence of blacks in the justice system. Ohio, for example, has 2,336 black and 422 white prisoners for every 100,000 people in each demographic group despite the state being 81 percent white, according to 2010 US Census data.
But even if the video equipment can't solve the systemic problems, it might shine a light on individual cases.
Among those cases is another recent police shooting in Cincinnati. QuanDavier Hicks, 22, was killed June 9 by Cincinnati police officer Doris Scott, who was not wearing a body camera.
Scott and her partner, officer Justin Moore, were responding to a report that Hicks was menacing a woman he knew. Officers showed up at his apartment in Cincinnati's Northside neighborhood. They say he came to a door in the building's second floor hallway pointing a .22 caliber rifle at Scott, who shot and killed him.
But Hicks's family questions that sequence of events, calling him a kind and gentle man. His mother, Erica Woods, drove 800 miles from Georgia the next day to see the scene of his death. In an interview with me at a June 11 rally, she said doesn't believe the official story. A CPD investigation into Hicks's death is ongoing nearly two months later. No video of the shooting exists.
Nick Swartsell is a reporter covering politics and social issues for CityBeat, Cincinnati's weekly paper. Previously, his work has appeared in the Texas Observer, the Texas Tribune, the Dallas Morning News and the New York Times. Follow him on Twitter.
*Correction 8/1: An earlier version of this article suggested Tensing did not fall to the ground during the altercation, but he does seem to momentarily lose his footing.