On Wednesday, as officials in Hamilton County, Ohio, released video footage of University of Cincinnati Police Officer Ray Tensing shooting unarmed motorist Samuel DuBose in the head during a traffic stop, prosecutor Joe Deters conducted himself as professionally and appropriately as any prosecutor I’ve ever seen in a similar situation.
The 30-year veteran, who announced that officer Tensing was being indicted for murder, took immediate care to affirmatively state that the victim in the case was not responsible for his fate. “This is the most asinine act I’ve ever seen a police officer make,” he told reporters. “People want to believe that Mr. DuBose had done something violent toward the officer; he did not. He did not at all. And I feel so sorry for his family and what they lost. And I feel sorry for the community, too.”
The balance of the press conference shows an official forthrightly disseminating difficult facts, explaining to the press exactly why he temporarily suppressed video evidence, fielding questions, expressing upset at a crime perpetrated by an agent of the state, offering words of comfort to the family, and urging calm in the community. And it suggests a prosecutor who gave no special treatment to the policeman.
“What’s the message to the community or to other police officers?” one reporter asked.
“Look,” the prosecutor answered, “we’re gonna follow the law in this office and we are going, if the facts fit the law, we’re gonna pursue that no matter if you’re a police officer or you’re Pope Francis, I don’t care who you are, we’re gonna go after you.”
More strikingly, he spoke about the case just as he would about a non-cop indicted for murder. “Purposeful killing of another, that’s what makes it murder,” he said. “He purposefully killed him.” Here’s a longer illustrative exchange with a reporter:
Deters: If we think something is awry, we go after it. A warrant for his arrest has gone out and hopefully they’ll pick him up soon.
Q: ... Have you discussed is he going to turn himself in at a scheduled time? Have you talked to his attorney about it?
Deters: I’m treating him like a murderer.
Q: Is he in custody right now?
Deters: They’re out to get him. We asked his lawyer to turn him in if he wants, but we’re going to arrest him.
Q: As we speak?
And here’s another important exchange about the moment when the motorist, asked to produce his license, took his foot off the brake and the car lurched slowly forward:
Q: What should the officer have done in this case? You said he reacted moments before the car slowly rolled away and the officer fired. What should he have done?
Deters: He wasn’t dealing with someone who was wanted for murder, he was dealing with someone who didn’t have a front license plate. I mean, this is—in the vernacular—a pretty chicken-crap stop, alright? And I could use harsher words. But, nonetheless, if he’s starting to roll away, just—seriously—let him go, you don’t have to shoot him in the head. And that’s what happened.
Later in the press conference, the prosecutor volunteered that future tragedies might be averted, in his view, if Cincinnati police officers rather than University of Cincinnati cops policed areas near campus, and that he’d already advised local leaders to make the change. I have no idea whether his assessment is correct, but it is heartening to see any member of the criminal-justice system going above and beyond his immediate duties to suggest reforms that might prevent future injustices.
A final notable moment of forthrightness came when a reporter asked about the utility of video footage in the case, and Deters acknowledged that if he were dealing with the officer’s verbal account of what happened rather than video evidence, there probably wouldn’t have been any murder indictment or arrest in the first place. That brings us to the one aspect of a stellar performance that warrants criticism.
“The policemen I know and the investigators I work with everyday, this situation would have never have escalated like this … I feel so sorry for his family and what they lost. And I feel sorry for the community, too,” Deters said. “Because we’ve worked so hard to develop great police relationships with the community and to have this type of a senseless act take place in Cincinnati. This doesn’t happen in the United States. This might happen in Afghanistan or somewhere ... This just does not happen in the United States. People don’t just get shot for a traffic stop unless they are violent toward the police officer. And he wasn’t. You’re gonna see it.”
I cannot speak to the overall quality of policing in Cincinnati. But it just isn’t true that “this doesn’t happen in the United States.” We know it happens because we’ve seen it before.
The prosecutor is surely familiar with the North Charleston police officer who shot and killed Walter Scott during a traffic stop just a few months ago, making national headlines:
He may not have seen, but should review, footage of a 70-year-old man shot during a traffic stop when a highway patrolman mistook his cane for a firearm of some sort:
As well, he should watch police officers in New Mexico firing at a minivan full of kids:
And the man at a Columbia, South Carolina, gas station shot by a police officer as he attempted to produce his driver’s license:
These incidents happen more frequently than is captured on video. And they raise the question of how many videos of this sort must emerge before conscientious prosecutors begin to accept what many Americans only started believing in the YouTube era: that while this sort of thing mostly doesn’t happen in England or Denmark or Spain, it happens with alarming frequency in the United States. The present case almost certainly would’ve turned out differently but for the existence of video. And that should make Deters more cautious in the future about presuming that the version of events given by police officers is the truth.