Cincinnati Shooting Reflects Reality Shift For Law Enforcement

Jul 30, 2015
Originally published on July 31, 2015 12:21 pm
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Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

When Prosecutor Joe Deters announced that indictment, he called the shooting senseless and asinine. That's different from the cautious tone prosecutors have used in similar cases. NPR's Martin Kaste says it indicates the ground has shifted.

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: After University of Cincinnati Police Officer Ray Tensing shot Sam DuBose on July 19, he left his body camera running.

(SOUNDBITE OF BODY CAMERA VIDEO)

UNIDENTIFIED OFFICER: You OK?

OFFICER RAY TENSING: I'm good.

KASTE: And it's fascinating to listen as Tensing catches his breath and tries to get a handle on why he just shot someone.

(SOUNDBITE OF BODY CAMERA VIDEO)

TENSING: I just got tangled in the car. I thought I was going to get run over.

KASTE: He says he got tangled up in the car and he thought he was going to get run over. And you can see in the video that he did have one arm in the car when it started moving. But as more officers arrived, Tensing's story shifts in a small but important way.

(SOUNDBITE OF BODY CAMERA VIDEO)

TENSING: No, he was dragging me, man.

KASTE: He was dragging me, he says. It's not that he was afraid of getting dragged. He was getting dragged. And he repeats this to almost everyone on the scene.

(SOUNDBITE OF BODY CAMERA VIDEO)

TENSING: I'm good. I just got dragged by him, got caught inside the door.

KASTE: And it may be that Tensing really remembered it that way. He did fall to the asphalt after he shot DuBose. Add to that the fact that another officer reported seeing him being dragged, and this very likely would've stayed the official story if it hadn't been for the video.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOE DETERS: He wasn't dragged.

KASTE: That's Hamilton County prosecuting attorney Joe Deters yesterday as he released the body cam video.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DETERS: This office has probably reviewed upwards of 100 police shootings. And this is the first time that we thought, this is without question a murder.

KASTE: Was it the video that made all the difference? That's certainly the opinion of the victim's sister, Terina Allen.

TERINA ALLEN: If it were not for that video camera, Sam would be no different than all the other incidents because the second officer was ready to corroborate every lie.

KASTE: And that's what people said in South Carolina too. This past April, when a North Charleston police officer killed Walter Scott, black leaders there were adamant that the only reason the officer was charged with murder was the fact that the shooting was caught on video. But it's not just the cameras that have increased the scrutiny on police shootings. Public pressure has made a difference too.

BOBBY HILTON: What happened in 2001 in Cincinnati helped prepare us for this day.

KASTE: That's the black clergyman named Bobby Hilton talking about the riots of 2001 after an officer shot and killed a young unarmed black man. Those riots pushed Cincinnati into long process of police reform and community outreach, something local officials now worry may be jeopardized by the actions of this one officer from the University of Cincinnati. But Hilton believes that this indictment confirms the progress that's been made.

HILTON: Let this be a model for the nation because I don't think Ferguson got this. I don't believe Baltimore got this. Other cities didn't get this. So let the nation see what happens when there is an effort to do things right, just and fair.

KASTE: But things didn't look that fair to Officer Tensing's defense lawyer yesterday. He said his client was being thrown under the bus by city leaders. Watching the case from Washington, the head of the Fraternal Order of Police had a similar reaction.

JIM PASCO: Let's face it. Prosecutors are sensitive to the mood of the community.

KASTE: Jim Pasco says this case, as well as the prosecution of six Baltimore police officers for the death of Freddie Gray this spring, show him that the deck now may be stacked against the police.

PASCO: It goes to show that to whatever extent people thought that local prosecutors were necessarily going to protect police officers - couldn't be more wrong. In fact, in this case, it doesn't appear that he's willing to give him the benefit of a presumption of innocence.

KASTE: He says when a prosecutor uses words like asinine to describe the actions of a police officer, it only exacerbates the recent tensions between the police and the public. Martin Kaste, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.