Cincinnati Deals with a Police Shooting

Samuel DuBose

Let me begin with a personal note.  My wife and I drive a car with no front license plate holder.  Over the past five years, we have frequently driven this car in or around the University of Cincinnati campus.  We have never been stopped or ticketed.  However, the missing front license plate became the pretext for pulling over Samuel DuBose.  It was yet another case of “driving while black”. Tragically, this one turned fatal.

On news of another death at the hands of police, commentators unfamiliar with Cincinnati assumed that the same thing would happen here as had happened in Cleveland and elsewhere in the nation.  They were a little surprised at what “even the police chief” thought of the video of the shooting, but they still expected the worst. [from]

“The video is not good,” [Cincinnati Chief of Police] Blackwell said. “I think the city manager has said that also publicly. I’ll leave it there.”

But here’s the thing.

All studies indicate that in nearly 99% of instances of police killing someone, even in the most egregious circumstances, “something appropriate” doesn’t actually happen and officers are let off.


When I read this, I expected Cincinnati to fall in the 1%.  Since the collaborative agreement that emerged after the killing of Timothy Thomas in 2001, the Cincinnati Police have worked hard to establish a culture of Constitutional Policing that has credibility with the black community.  This shooting was committed by a member of the university police, which apparently does not share this culture.  Normally, in the case of a shooting like this, the Cincinnati Police release the raw video right away. Given their delay this time and their public comments, I expected some unusual action.

The university, knowing the video would be released to the public Wednesday,expected trouble.  It shut itself down, canceling classes and evacuating students.  State police were brought to the scene.

Joe Deters
The video was released.  “Not good” turned out to be an understatement.  Ray Tensing was charged with murder.  In the press conference, the Hamilton County prosecutor, Jet Deters, made his position clear


It’s an absolute tragedy that anyone would behave in this manner …It was senseless. It’s just horrible. …

He purposefully killed him…

Some people want to believe Mr. DuBose did something violent toward the officer. He did not. He did not at all. …

[UC Policemen Ray Tensing] never should have been a police officer. …

He was dealing with someone without a front license plate, …chicken crap stuff.

I feel sorry for [DuBose’s] family. I feel sorry for the community, too. This should not happen. Ever.

<Cincinnati Enquirer>

Talk like this defuses the powder keg.

Bishop Bobby Hilton, a leader of the black community in Cincinnati,  “What more can you ask for? As terrible as it is, it should be a proud moment for our community. We can prove that we can take the most horrible incident and show the world how our community reacts and becomes better.”

It remains to be seen what is to be done with some other officers who arrived on the scene later and offered testimony corroborating Tensing’s original account, which is inconsistent with the video.  This issue has been raised by some of the protesters.

The protest itself, perhaps somewhat subdued by the heat and thunder showers, was peaceful.

The American system of justice does not work automatically.  Ferguson has shown us how it can fail.  The foundation of the failure is laid by a public largely uninvolved with the civic sphere.  It culminates with public officials who are callously unaware of the problems faced by the people they supposedly serve,  who use discriminatory policing as a way to extract revenue from its poorest citizens, who instinctively give the police the benefit of the doubt despite evidence to the contrary, and who think that deaths at the hands of police, tragic as they may be, are a normal part of keeping the peace when dealing with “those people”.  “Those people” are us, all of us.  Our system requires both a vigilant public and officials who are committed to providing security and justice for all.

There is plenty still to do, but our city can pause for a moment and take pride in how far we have come in this new century.  The lawyer for the DuBose family, Mark O’Mara, summed it up this way:   “Cincinnati is showing us how to do this right.”