A white University of Cincinnati police officer has been indicted for murder and voluntary manslaughter for fatally shooting an unarmed black man in the head during a routine traffic stop on July 19.
"This is the most asinine act I've ever seen a police officer make," Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Deters said. "It's an absolute tragedy in 2015 that anyone would behave in this manner. It was senseless."
UC police officer Ray Tensing, who is white, fatally shot Samuel DuBose, a 43-year-old black man, after DuBose refused to get out of the car during the traffic stop. He pleaded not guilty to the charges, the Hill's Mark Hensch reported.
The shooting has once again highlighted racial disparities in police use of force — an issue that's become a matter of national protests and debates since the police shooting of unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, last August.
Tensing stopped DuBose for missing a front license plate on his car
Warning: Graphic footage of the shooting:
Tensing, who was wearing a body camera that captured the entire traffic stop and shooting, stopped DuBose around 6:30 pm when he noticed DuBose's car didn't have a front license plate. Tensing asked for a driver's license, but DuBose didn't appear to have a license on him. Tensing then asked DuBose to take off his seat belt.
The vehicle began slowly moving forward. Tensing quickly fired a single shot into the driver's window, hitting DuBose in the head and killing him.
After firing his gun, Tensing fell to the ground. He initially claimed that he was dragged by the car. But Deters, the prosecutor, said his office didn't believe that was the case, and the body camera footage shows it's not true.
Deters called the shooting "unwarranted" and "senseless." He said DuBose did nothing to provoke Tensing's actions, and the officer seemed to act out of anger because DuBose wouldn't get out of the car. "This office has probably reviewed upward of 100 police shootings," Deters said, "and this is the first time where we thought this is without question a murder."
Tensing faces the possibility of life in prison after a grand jury indicted him for murder and voluntary manslaughter, Deters said. The university also fired him after the charges were announced, according to UC President Santa Ono.
Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley said at a news conference that the city's police department will work with UC to update and improve training and policies on use of force. "As a general matter, a pullover related to a license plate should not in a normal course of events lead to lethal force … as it has in this case," he said.
UC has an agreement with the Cincinnati Police Department to help patrol areas around the campus.
The university police department's use of force procedure states that campus officers "should not discharge a firearm at or from a moving vehicle except as the ultimate measure of self-defense or defense of another when the suspect is using deadly force," according to CNN.
But Deters said the university "shouldn't be in the policing business," and the Cincinnati Police Department would be better suited to the task.
Black suspects are much more likely to be shot and killed by police
An analysis of the available FBI data by Vox's Dara Lind shows that US police kill black people at disproportionate rates: They accounted for 31 percent of police shooting victims in 2012, even though they made up just 13 percent of the US population. Although the data is incomplete, since it's based on voluntary reports from police agencies around the country, it highlights the vast disparities in how police use force.
Black teens were 21 times as likely as white teens to be shot and killed by police between 2010 and 2012, according to a ProPublica analysis of the FBI data. ProPublica reported: "One way of appreciating that stark disparity, ProPublica's analysis shows, is to calculate how many more whites over those three years would have had to have been killed for them to have been at equal risk. The number is jarring — 185, more than one per week."
Subconscious racial biases, known as implicit biases, may explain the disparities. Studies show, for example, that officers are quicker to shoot black suspects in video game simulations. Josh Correll, a University of Colorado Boulder psychology professor who conducted the research, said it's possible the bias could lead to even more skewed outcomes in the field. "In the very situation in which [officers] most need their training," he said, "we have some reason to believe that their training will be most likely to fail them."
There were several high-profile police killings in the past year involving black men and boys. In Ferguson, Darren Wilson killed unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown. In Ohio, police killed 22-year-old John Crawford and 12-year-old Tamir Rice in separate shootings after mistaking toy guns for actual weapons. In New York City, NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo killed Eric Garner by putting the unarmed 43-year-old black man in a chokehold.
Cops can legally shoot when they reasonably perceive a threat
Police only need to reasonably perceive a threat to legally fire — and the threat doesn't have to be actually present.
Constitutionally, "police officers are allowed to shoot under two circumstances," David Klinger, a University of Missouri St. Louis professor who studies law enforcement officers' use of force, said in August. The first circumstance is "to protect their life or the life of another innocent party" — referred to as the "defense of life" standard by police departments. The second circumstance is to prevent a suspect from escaping, but only if the officer has probable cause to think the suspect poses a dangerous threat to others.
The logic behind the second circumstance, Klinger explained, comes from Tennessee v. Garner. That case involved a pair of police officers who shot a 15-year-old boy as he fled from a burglary. (He'd stolen $10 and a purse from a house.) The court ruled that cops couldn't shoot every felon who tried to escape. But, as Klinger said, "They basically say that the job of a cop is to protect people from violence, and if you've got a violent person who's fleeing, you can shoot them to stop their flight."
The key to both of the legal standards — defense of life and stopping a fleeing violent felon — is that it doesn't matter whether there is an actual threat when force is used. Instead, what matters is the officer's "objectively reasonable" belief that there is a threat.
That standard comes from the other Supreme Court case that guides use-of-force decisions: Graham v. Connor. This was a civil lawsuit brought by a man who survived his encounter with police officers but was treated roughly, had his face shoved into the hood of a car, and broke his foot — all while suffering a diabetic attack. The court didn't rule on whether the officers' actions had been justified, but said police couldn't justify their conduct solely based on whether their intentions were good. They had to demonstrate that their actions were "objectively reasonable," given the circumstances and compared with what other police officers might do.
What's "objectively reasonable" changes as the circumstances change. "One can't just say, 'Because I could use deadly force 10 seconds ago, that means I can use deadly force again now,'" Walter Katz, a California attorney who specializes in oversight of law enforcement agencies, said in August.
In general, officers are given a lot of legal room to use force without fear of punishment. The intention behind these legal standards is to give police officers leeway to make split-second decisions to protect themselves and bystanders. And although critics argue that these legal standards give law enforcement a license to kill innocent or unarmed people, police officers say they are essential to their safety.
Police are rarely prosecuted for shootings
The charges against Tensing are surprising because police are very rarely prosecuted for shootings — and not just because the law allows them wide latitude to use force on the job. Sometimes the investigations fall onto the same police department the officer is from, which creates major conflicts of interest. Other times the only available evidence comes from eyewitnesses, who may not be as trustworthy in the public eye as a police officer.
"There is a tendency to believe an officer over a civilian, in terms of credibility," David Rudovsky, a civil rights lawyer who co-wrote Prosecuting Misconduct: Law and Litigation, told Vox's Amanda Taub. "And when an officer is on trial, reasonable doubt has a lot of bite. A prosecutor needs a very strong case before a jury will say that somebody who we generally trust to protect us has so seriously crossed the line as to be subject to a conviction."
Nationally, if police are charged, they're very rarely convicted. The National Police Misconduct Reporting Project analyzed 3,238 criminal cases against police officers from April 2009 through December 2010. They found that only 33 percent were convicted, and only 36 percent of officers who were convicted ended up serving prison sentences. Both of those are about half the rate at which members of the public are convicted or incarcerated.
The big difference between the DuBose case and others appears to be the body camera footage, which showed Tensing's claims that he was dragged by the car and nearly run over were false. Deters, the prosecutor, called the body camera video "invaluable." The video pushed this case beyond a he-says-she-says scenario, proving to Deters and the grand jury that Tensing was clearly in the wrong.