Hamilton County prosecutor Joseph Deters struck an emotional and powerful chord on Wednesday, when he repeatedly called the police shooting death of Sam DuBose, an unarmed African-American man, "a murder."
Ray Tensing, a white University of Cincinnati police officer, stopped DuBose on July 19, ostensibly for not having a front license plate on his car, and body cam video confirms that he shot and killed the 43-year-old after he reached to undo his seat belt. Tensing had initially claimed he fired on DuBose following a struggle which led to him being dragged behind his car. Tensing has since turned himself in to authorities and faces murder charges which could land him in prison for life. Tensing has been fired by the university and the killing has ignited racial tension.
“I realize what this was going to mean to our community, and it really broke my heart because it’s just bad,” Deters said. “I feel so sorry for this family and what they lost. And I feel sorry for the community, too.”
With his unflinching condemnation of Tensing, Deters has joined a growing list of prosecutors from across the country who’ve entered emotionally raw territory in police brutality cases. As the tally of African-American men and women killed by police or in police custody has continued to swell, drawing attention worldwide, prosecutors have become high-profile targets of criticism. Police who kill citizens are rarely ever prosecuted — let alone indicted by prosecutors or grand juries.
But in a rare turn on Wednesday, Deters, known locally as a tough-talking, law-and-order type, announced a grand jury’s decision to indict Tensing on murder charges. In announcing the charges, Deter at times seemed angry and anguished.
“This office has probably reviewed upwards of 100 police shootings and this is the first time where we thought, ‘This is without question a murder,'” Deters said. “I’ve been doing this for 30 years. This is the most asinine act I’ve ever seen a police officer make, totally unwarranted.”
Deters went on to describe the killing as “an absolute tragedy.”
“It was senseless. He lost his temper because Mr. Dubose wouldn’t get out of his car quick enough,” Deters said. “When you see this, you won’t believe how quickly he pulls his gun. Maybe a second — it’s incredible.”
The video of the incident was critical in arriving at the decision to indict Tensing, Deters said, adding that he thinks Tensing tried to intentionally mislead investigators. “The body cam was very important in this investigation,” Deters said. “I think it's a good idea for police to wear body cameras. This time it led to an indictment for murder.”
DuBose’s family said they are also concerned that Tensing’s officers may have tried to aid his cover-up of the shooting, noting their corroboration of his story in their official reports of the incident. Deters said he understands the family’s concerns and will further investigate the role Tensing’s fellow officers may have played in attempting to mislead investigators.
While Deter’s announcement of charges and the manner in which he did so are rare, there have indeed been a handful of recent indictments of officers involved in the killing of unarmed African-Americans.
In April, South Carolina prosecutor Scarlet Wilson announced murder charges against former North Charleston police officer Michael Slager for fatally shooting Walter Scott in the back after a traffic stop over a busted taillight.
In May, Baltimore County prosecutor Marilyn Mosby announced the indictment of six Baltimore police officers in the death of Freddie Gray while he was handcuffed in the back of a police van.
"To the people of Baltimore and the demonstrators across America, I heard your call for no justice, no peace," Mosby said in announcing the charges, which included murder and a slew of lesser charges. “Your peace is sincerely needed as I work to deliver justice on behalf of this young man.”
In the days leading up to Mosby’s announcement, protestors and rioters took to the city’s streets and expressed their outrage and frustration with bricks and flames. And several months earlier, in Ferguson, Missouri, rioters burned businesses and smashed windows following a decision by a grand jury there not to indict the former officer who shot and killed unarmed black teen Michael Brown Jr. last August.
Ahead of Deters' announcement, Cincinnati braced for the possibility of such unrest. The University of Cincinnati cancelled classes for the day and local activists, residents and business owners prepared for the worst. In 2001, the city erupted following the killing of 19-year-old Timothy Thomas by an officer who’d stopped him for a misdemeanor traffic violation.
But Deters' announcement of charges against Tensing in the DuBose killing seemed to allow the city to collectively exhale.
“A stop for no front license plate is crazy. It's ridiculous that this happened,” Deters said. "Could imagine the outrage that you would have if this was your kid or brother? He did nothing violent towards the officer. He pulled out his gun and intentionally shot him in the head. I have paid attention to some of the protests about this. Everyone seems to have behaved themselves. The family has spoken out that any protests should be peaceful. That's the way it should be.”