A white campus police officer was charged with murder Wednesday for fatally shooting an unarmed black man after a routine traffic stop last week, an incident a local prosecutor decried as a “senseless, asinine shooting.”
The episode added Cincinnati to the list of cities where white officers have shot and killed black civilians, drawing national attention and fueling an ongoing debate over police use of deadly force against minorities.
A similar shooting in 2001 provoked violent riots here. With that memory still fresh, local officials moved swiftly and deliberately to try to contain the fallout.
“It was so unnecessary for this to occur,” Hamilton County prosecutor Joe Deters said at an afternoon news conference. Of more than 100 police shootings reviewed by his office, Deters said, “this is the first time that we’ve thought, ‘This is without question a murder.’”
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University of Cincinnati police officer Raymond Tensing, 25, now faces the possibility of life in prison for shooting Samuel Dubose, 43, on the evening of July 19, roughly two minutes after pulling him over for failure to display a front license plate.
At first, Tensing said he was forced to shoot Dubose because he was being dragged by the car and nearly run over, according to the initial police report. But Deters said that didn’t happen, and Tensing was wearing a body camera that captured the incident.
The video, released Wednesday, appears to show Dubose turning the ignition after Tensing tells him to take off his seat belt. The officer reaches toward the door, yells “Stop!” and draws his gun. Then he thrusts the weapon through the open car window and fires a single round, striking Dubose in the head.
“He wasn’t dealing with someone who was wanted for murder. He was dealing with someone who didn’t have a front license plate. This was, in the vernacular, a pretty chicken-crap stop,” Deters said, adding: “I’m treating him like a murderer.”
Police officers are rarely charged for fatally shooting people in the line of duty. Of 558 fatal shootings by police so far this year, according to a Washington Post database tracking such shootings, the death of Dubose is only the fourth to result in criminal charges against the officer.
Of the others, two also involved white officers shooting black men; the third victim was white. All three were captured on video.
On Wednesday, Tensing surrendered to police and was taken into custody as university officials announced his firing. He is scheduled to be arraigned today. His indictment by a grand jury comes just 10 days after Dubose’s death — and almost exactly one year after the killing of a black man by a white police officer in Ferguson, Mo., which sparked protests and energized a national civil rights movement.
Before the indictment was announced, Tensing’s attorney, Stew Matthews, seemed to anticipate that outcome, blaming “the political climate here and nationally.” Afterward, Matthews told WCPO, an Ohio TV station, that Tensing “was thrown under the bus by everyone in this city.” Matthews did not respond to further requests for comment.
Some local officials and activists complained that officials had not released the body-camera footage sooner, especially since it contradicted the version of events police released immediately after the shooting.
“There was no transparency, no grace towards the family,” said Iris Roley, a leader of the Cincinnati Black United Front, a civil rights group.
But at a news conference, Audrey Dubose, the mother of the slain driver, expressed relief — and forgiveness. She had prayed that the truth about her son’s death would come out, she said, adding: “I’m so thankful that everything was uncovered.”
Calling her son a righteous, joyful man, Dubose said she thought the officer who shot him should have been “locked up on Day One” and said she wondered why he was still walking the streets.
“I thought it was going to be covered up. I heard many stories and everything. But . . . I trust God, and I knew everything was going to be all right,” she said. She added that she could forgive Tensing now if he asked for forgiveness.
Mark O’Mara, an attorney for Dubose’s family, urged against any violent or aggressive response.
“Sam was a peaceful person,” O’Mara said. “We do not want any violence, any anger to come out in a way that denigrates who he was and who he wanted to be remembered as.”
Local reaction to Tensing’s indictment was muted. Before the announcement, the University of Cincinnati canceled classes out of “an abundance of caution.” On Wednesday evening, about 250 people gathered for a hastily called rally in front of the Hamilton County courthouse, but the event was dampened by a passing thunderstorm.
The mood seemed to grow more tense later, when about 150 people began marching through downtown Cincinnati to police headquarters.
“Justice will be served when Ray Tensing is convicted of murder and other officers are charged with accessory,” said Emmanuel Grey, an organizer with the Black Lives Matter activist group in Cincinnati.
Earlier in the day, mourners gathered around the spot about half a mile from the university campus where Dubose was killed. A makeshift memorial had taken shape with balloons and poster board.
“Sam was a really good guy, a really brilliant musician,” said Robyn Jones, who said she had known Dubose since he was 13. “He was very driven and a wonderful family man who touched a lot of lives.”
“I was very relieved we got justice,” Jones added. “A campus police officer had no business doing a traffic stop in an urban area.”
Joseph Norris, who lives in the neighborhood, was waiting for food at King Wok, a restaurant just off the sprawling campus.
“My record is clean, but as a young black and I start shaking whenever a police car pulls up behind me,” Norris said. If university police are going to make traffic stops, he said, “they need better training.”
Deters questioned why the university had a police force at all. “I don’t think a university should be in the policing business,” he said.
But the university’s president, Santa Ono, said he thought the school’s force should be improved rather than disbanded. School officials had previously announced that they would bring in an outside investigator to review the department’s policies.
Meanwhile, amid concerns about the shooting, the school announced last week that its officers would patrol and make traffic stops only on campus.
Tensing was about a half-mile south of campus when he pulled over Dubose’s green Honda Accord at 6:30 p.m. on a Sunday evening. The body-camera footage shows a routine traffic stop that abruptly escalated to bloodshed.
“Hey, how’s it going, man?” Tensing begins. He explains to Dubose that he stopped him because he was not displaying a front plate. Tensing asks Dubose for his driver’s license multiple times, but Dubose hands over only what appears to be a bottle of gin. Dubose finally admits that he doesn’t have his license with him, adding: “I just don’t. I’m sorry, sir.”
With that admission, Tensing asks Dubose to take off his seat belt, presumably a prelude to asking Dubose to get out of the car. Dubose protests that he had not done anything wrong and appears to turn the car back on. At that point, Tensing yells “Stop!” and draws his gun.
After the shooting, the car lurches forward and comes to a stop some distance down the street. Tensing runs after it, yelling to a dispatcher that medical attention is needed.
One minute and 53 seconds had elapsed since Tensing first approached the car.
“Could you imagine the outrage you would have if this was your kid, if this was your brother, over a stop like this?” Deters said. “And he didn’t do anything violent towards the officer. He wasn’t dragging him. And he pulled out his gun and intentionally shot him in the head.”
In 2001, Cincinnati was torn by riots, looting and protests after a white officer shot and killed an unarmed black man, Timothy Thomas. At the request of then-Mayor Charlie Luken, the Justice Department launched a review of the Cincinnati police, and a series of reforms followed. The officer, Stephen Roach, was charged but later acquitted.
Over the past year, protests have raged in Ferguson, Mo., New York and other cities after similar encounters, often because authorities did not press charges against officers involved in the fatal incidents.
With Tensing’s indictment, Cincinnati appears to be following a pattern laid out earlier this year in North Charleston, S.C. There, Michael Slager, a white police officer, shot and killed a black man, Walter Scott, after a traffic stop.
At first, Slager reported that Scott had taken his Taser, but a bystander’s cellphone video later emerged to contradict that account. It showed Slager firing multiple shots into Scott’s back as he ran away.
Tensing “was wrong,” said Cincinnati Police Chief Jeffrey Blackwell. “And when we’re wrong, we need to be held accountable.”