The murder of Sam Dubose by University of Cincinnati police officer Ray Tensing was truly horrible. The video captured by Tensing’s body-cam shows what began as a routine traffic stop. At first, the officer asks to see Dubose’s license, and ends up having to ask a number of times. Then, a series of events unfolds rapidly over just a few seconds. We see Tensing tell Dubose to take off his seat belt. Next, the officer grasps the handle to open the door on the driver’s side. Dubose subsequently puts one hand over the door—where the window had been rolled down—and pulls in an attempt to hold it shut, while starting his car. The video then shows Tensing reach into the car with one hand, twice call out “stop”—during which time Dubose revs the engine—and then, inexplicably, the officer pulls out his weapon and delivers one shot, fatal, to the head, as the car accelerates forward and ultimately rolls to a stop not far away.
Joseph T. Deters is the district attorney of Hamilton County, the person who secured an indictment of murder in this case. Deters has ensured that, this time at least, there will be a trial after the death of an unarmed, non-threatening black man at the hands of a cop. Here’s what Deters said about the killing of Sam Dubose, below:
I’ve been doing this for over 30 years. This is the most asinine act I’ve ever seen a police officer make. Totally unwarranted. It’s an absolute tragedy in the year 2015 that anyone would behave in this manner. It was senseless.
Thankfully, the video-cam provides the evidence necessary to bring the murderer to justice. At the press conference announcing the indictment, Deters explained that without the video, the authorities would have believed Officer Tensing’s story as described in the incident report—namely that he had been dragged alongside the car, that his life had been in danger as he “was almost run over,” and it was for that reason he fired his weapon.
We’ll see how the trial goes, and whether any new evidence comes to light, but at least now the justice that Sam Dubose’s mother rightfully demanded at her son’s funeral stands a chance. As bad as this murder was, at this point I want to focus on what happened afterwards, specifically on the officers who were perfectly willing to lie on Tensing’s behalf, to support his false account, and thus to cover up a murder.
Make no mistake. This was a deliberate cover up. When it comes to Tensing, am I surprised that someone capable of murder was willing to lie about it? Of course not. I don’t mean to dismiss his lies, but they are the least of his crimes that day. Let’s focus on what two other officers, Phillip Kidd and Eric Weibel, said after arriving on the murder scene.
Officer Weibel drafted the aforementioned police report. In addition to Tensing’s own lies, both Kidd and Weibel also bore false witness. As Weibel wrote: “Officer Kidd told me that he witnessed the Honda Accord drag Officer Tensing, and that he witnessed Officer Tensing fire a single shot.” You saw the video. Tensing was not dragged. Phillip Kidd lied. Weibel continued: “Looking at Officer Tensing’s uniform, I could see that the back of his pants and shirt looked as if it had been dragged over a rough surface.” You saw the video. Tensing was not dragged. Eric Weibel also lied.
What’s going to happen to these two officers? The Dubose family sure wants to know, and pushed for answers on that front from District Attorney Deters, who stated that his office is “looking at the issue.” That’s good, for a start, but we need to keep the pressure on to make sure they do more than look.
Unless the investigation uncovers radically different information from what we already know, Officers Kidd and Weibel must be punished severely for what they did. Their lies didn’t kill Sam Dubose. But they would have allowed his killer to get away with it. While Ray Tensing committed murder in an instant, Phillip Kidd and Eric Weibel sought to murder the truth in a calculated fashion. They had time to craft their stories, to get them just right before presenting them to their superiors as the official version of events.
On the matter of police reform, officers should use the minimum amount of force necessary. We should aim to be a society where there are no unjustified killings or other acts of violence committed against civilians by officers. Certainly our peer countries demonstrate that we can do much, much better than we are. There are countless numerical comparisons to be made, but this one is as shocking as it is simple to digest.
Whether or not we achieve of the goal of perfection, we must also reform our police departments so that if any officer does act in an unjust way toward a civilian, every other officer will work to ensure justice rather than obstruct it. The fact that Ray Tensing had no trouble finding willing co-conspirators, accessories after the fact in a sense, speaks volumes about why it is so hard to make progress in the fight against police abuse.
That abuse, disproportionately experienced by African Americans, Latino Americans, and American Indians, is so dangerous because—in addition to the direct harm it causes its victims—it further corrodes the relationship between those communities and law enforcement. If we could get to a place where that relationship works properly, where people trust rather than fear the police and the criminal justice system, more lives could be saved in the very communities that suffer most from crime and violence.
Right now, one of the biggest obstacles standing in the way of America getting to that place is the fact that too many people—mostly white, albeit not exclusively—don’t believe that this kind of police abuse is a real problem. When an officer uses force, and claims that it was justified, many people believe the officer every time, even when countered by statements from non-officers who say different.
I’m not suggesting that we should do the opposite, that we should never believe a police officer, or that we should always take the word of a civilian when their stories conflict. But the sheer number of cases where officers have lied about what they’ve done—lies we know about only because we have video evidence that was rarely available until very recently—makes clear that those who say we should always take the word of a cop over the person assumed to have done something illegal are either hopelessly naive, willfully blind, or simply too invested in their privilege to care.
Police officers aren’t the only people who lie about crimes. That’s not the point. The police are supposed to uphold the law. Criminals are supposed be the ones who break it. We should be able to tell the difference between them.