Indictment of Cincinnati campus police officer in Samuel Dubose shooting shows promise of broader reform

University of Cincinnati police officer Ray Tensing was indicted earlier today for murder and voluntary manslaughter. Tensing shot Samuel Dubose, a 43 year-old, unarmed black man, in a routine traffic stop earlier this month. He has also been fired from the University of Cincinnati’s police force.

From VICE News:

Hamilton County prosecutor Joe Deters announced felony murder charges against officer Ray Tensing at a press conference on Wednesday. “I’ve been doing this for over 30 years,” Deters said. “This is the most asinine act I’ve ever seen a police officer make. Totally unwarranted… It’s an absolute tragedy and that in the year 2015 that anyone would behave in this manner. It was senseless… Its just horrible.”

The indictment came following the release of video from the body camera Tensing was wearing during the incident. While Tensing had claimed that he shot Dubose because he was being “dragged” by Dubose’s car as he attempted to speed away, the video shows that Tensing shot Dubose with no provocation whatsoever.

Here is the video from Tensing’s body camera (warning: graphic):

As the video shows, Tensing pulled Dubose over for failing to have his front license plate properly displayed. He repeatedly asks Dubose for his license, to which Dubose replies that he doesn’t have it in his possession, but that he is a licensed driver and Tensing can look him up. After repeating his request, Tensing asks Dubose to take his seatbelt off, Dubose says that he hasn’t done anything wrong and turns toward Tensing, and Tensing suddenly draws his gun and shoots Dubose in the head. Only then does Dubose’s car speed away from Tensing, as he is lying dead in the front seat without the emergency brake engaged.

Don't Shoot, via Mike Licht / Flickr

Don’t Shoot, via Mike Licht / Flickr

As Hamilton County prosecutor Joe Denton remarked in the press conference following the indictment: “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.”

Dubose’s death raises a number of questions, not the least of which is why the University of Cincinnati arms its police officers with deadly weapons in the first place. Going beyond that, however, it shows that while institutional reforms can’t prevent racism from manifesting itself in the worst ways, they can make justice more likely.

It is not only possible but likely that without video evidence of the shooting Ray Tensing would not have been indicted. Grand juries almost never indict police officers, and without video evidence directly contradicting his claim of self defense, they would likely have taken him at his word. Furthermore, the speed with which the indictment was handed down shows what was made apparent in the non-indictment of Darren Wilson, the officer who shot Michael Brown: a prosecutor can indict a ham sandwich if they feel like it. If they don’t, as is often the case concerning allegations of police brutality, they can and do avoid bringing charges.

When the system isn’t bending over backwards to let violent police officers off the hook, they stand a chance of being held accountable for their actions.

Tensing is scheduled to appear in court tomorrow to begin his trial.

Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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