How One Campus Cop Undid a City's Police Reforms

Samuel DuBose’s death at the hands of a university police officer points to problems with piecemeal approaches to reform.

A still from Officer Ray Tensing's body cam depicting his stop of Samuel Dubose (Hamilton County Prosecutor)

During a news conference Wednesday, discussing the killing of Samuel DuBose, Hamilton County, Ohio, prosecutor Joe Deters said several remarkable things.

“This is without question a murder,” he said, adding that Ray Tensing, who killed Dubose—an unarmed black man pulled over for a missing front license plate—“should never have been a police officer.” Deters said, “This is the most asinine act I’ve ever seen a police officer make.”

Amid a string of cases where police have killed black men, what makes this case different, as Robinson Meyer notes, is body-cam footage that captured the incident, and helped bring about Tensing’s indictment for murder. But the case is also interesting because Tensing wasn't a Cincinnati police officer. He was employed by the police department of the University of Cincinnati—a fact the prosecutor lamented.

“I just don’t think a university should be in a policing business,” Deters said. “I just don’t.”

The United States faces nationwide problems in policing, but the solutions so far have often taken the form of federal intervention in local police departments on a case-by-case basis: a civil-rights investigation in Ferguson, Missouri; a consent decree in Cleveland; and so on. This piecemeal approach risks producing only piecemeal results—there are, after all, around 18,000 police departments nationwide at last count—and worse, what fixes one department may not fix its neighbor.

That’s a story that Cincinnati can tell with tragic eloquence. The city has been hailed as one of the success stories of police reform in this century. In 2001, race riots erupted in the Over-the-Rhine neighborhood, just a stone’s (or bottle’s) throw from downtown. Tensions between police and black residents were already high when an officer shot and killed a 19-year-old black man, touching off the rioting. In the years since, as Alana Semuels detailed in May, Cincinnati has worked to fix its broken department and repair relations in the community. It has deployed a technique called community problem-oriented policing, which prioritizes fixing underlying problems over arresting people and hauling them in. Cincinnati Chief of Police Jeffrey Blackwell, who is black, attended DuBose’s funeral and offered his condolences—a sign of the department’s outreach.

None of that helped save DuBose’s life, though, since Tensing was an officer with the University of Cincinnati police. It’s a much smaller department, with just 72 officers. And, it’s not even the only campus department in the city—Xavier University has one, too.

Data on campus police departments is even less comprehensive than on municipal police. Much of the academic literature over recent decades focuses on the ability of campus police to ensure law and order, rather than the extent to which they are subject to it. That’s a mirror of the broader police landscape, where researchers, reporters, and reformers alike have been frustrated by the lack of good data on questions like police violence.

Here’s some of what is known: There are more than 800 campus police departments around the country as of last count. The Bureau of Justice Statistics reported that as of 2005, starting salaries for campus police were lower than for officers in municipal departments. Campus departments also have a reputation among cops for being boring—they’re small and tend to cover small areas, there’s less crime, and the issues they’re dealing with are often minor cases like speeding on campus roads or underage drinking. (This police forum provides some examples of this complaint.) Of course, this means that campus police may be less experienced and less prepared for higher-pressure encounters. In December 2013, Cameron Redus, a student at San Antonio’s University of the Incarnate Word was shot by an officer under questionable circumstances. There’s been a robust debate over whether campus police officers ought to be armed like their municipal counterparts.

There’s a persuasive argument for the existence of campus police: They’re patrolling places full of young people who may raise hell but aren’t serious threats to public order, and the slate of crimes they handle are different from what municipal police tend to address.

Problems crop up where cities and towns closely abut campuses. Go to any place with fraught or even occasionally tense town-gown relations and you can find stories of townies—and often, though not exclusively black ones—being hassled simply for being on or near campus areas where they have every right to be. (Similarly common are stories of campus police hassling black students whom they take to be interlopers.) Many campus police departments also have jurisdiction off campus, often by means of agreements with local departments. The North Dakota Supreme Court recently invalidated such agreements in that state.

Campus police are just a part of a bigger system, though. In addition to local police, the nation has thousands of other law-enforcement agencies: nearly 2,000 “special-jurisdiction agencies” like campus police departments; state police forces; sheriff’s departments; and several hundred more that don’t fit any of those categories. In a highly publicized case in March, a student at the University of Virginia was beaten near campus by Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Control officers for allegedly using a fake ID. All charges against him were later dropped. Together, these departments make up an important piece of the law-enforcement landscape, and one that poses particular challenges.

DuBose’s death will likely prompt a reassessment of the role of campus police, whether most universities ought to have their own forces, and what those forces should look like. It might also encourage a more important, broader conversation among police reformers about the ways that interlocking departments and jurisdictions demand interlocking solutions.

In preparation for Wednesday's news conference, the University of Cincinnati canceled classes and prepared for possible riots—probably remembering what happened 14 years ago. If Cincinnati can solve its police problem, but one rogue officer on a tiny force within the city can bring it back to the brink of riots, it suggests a more systemic overhaul is needed.