CINCINNATI — Following a 10-day investigation, a city waiting to view the body camera footage of former UC police officer Ray Tensing finally got its wish.
Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Deters showed the video to reporters during a news conference Wednesday afternoon, just moments after announcing a grand jury had indicted Tensing on one count of murder and one count of voluntary manslaughter in the shooting of unarmed black motorist Sam DuBose during an off-campus traffic stop.
It was already clear that the video footage would be a crucial piece of the puzzle surrounding the events that led to the fatal shooting.
But what was not clear until Wednesday was just how much of an impact that video footage would have, and what it would reveal about officers’ initial reports.
In the days to follow the shooting, DuBose’s family and friends -- skeptical of the initial police report’s account of the traffic stop -- called on Deters to release the video. Community leaders and local media would soon follow suit, demanding the prosecutor release the footage. WCPO and other local media outlets went so far as to sue Deters, demanding the video’s release.
Deters refused the request, pending a grand jury’s decision.
On Wednesday, the public finally got a glimpse of just how pivotal the video would become.
“If we didn’t have the body camera video, what would we have? We would have nothing,” Deters told 700 WLW’s Bill Cunningham Wednesday afternoon, saying the video is what cleared the way for his pursuit of a murder conviction and a life sentence for Tensing.
That’s because, as Deters pointed out, initial reports of the incident do not quite line up with what the video seems to show.
At the center of the discrepancy is one question.
Did DuBose Drag Tensing Beside His Car?
While the incident report depicted an officer firing his weapon in self-defense, Deters said the video told a different story, one in which a possibly frustrated police officer knowingly killed an unarmed man.
"I think he (Tensing) lost his temper because Mr. DuBose would not get out of his car... When you see it, you will not believe how quickly he pulled his gun and shot him in the head," Deters said.
"It was senseless. It didn't have to happen," Deters said, adding that Tensing should have never stopped DuBose for not having a front license plate.
In the incident report, reporting officer Eric Weibel stated that Tensing said he was “almost run over by the driver of the Honda Accord and was forced to shoot the driver.”
Weibel went on to corroborate this, stating in the report that he “could see that the back of [Tensing’s] pants and shirt looked as if it had been dragged over a rough surface.”
But, before screening the video, Deters said this was not true. “No, he was not dragged.”
Indeed, contrary to Tensing’s claim that he was being dragged and forced to shoot, the video shows Tensing discharged his weapon at or before the same moment the vehicle began to move.
Radio dispatch recordings obtained by WCPO also capture Tensing saying that he got his hand and arm caught inside the vehicle.
The part about his hand and arm being inside the car? That’s true.
But, again turning to the video, Tensing is seen reaching into the vehicle in what seems to be an attempt to grab DuBose’s seatbelt, as DuBose restarts the vehicle’s ignition.
Referring to the footage, Deters said Tensing never seemed to actually be “caught. Deters said, “[Tensing] fell backwards after he shot [DuBose] in the head."
Tensing is then seen getting up and chasing after DuBose's vehicle, having rolled down the street before jumping the opposite curb and coming to a stop. When officers reach the vehicle, they discover DuBose had been shot.
Tensing's attorney, Stew Mathews, interprets the video differently. Also during an interview on WLW Thursday afternoon, Mathews said other body camera video footage reveals that DuBose's car did not roll slowly but rather sped away with Tensing's arm still inside.
"Once the entire body of evidence comes out, there will be a more clear picture of what happened," Mathews said.
Mathews was referring to body camera footage from a device worn by accompanying officer David Lindenschmidt, which Mathews said shows Tensing on the ground "20-25 feet away" from where DuBose's car was initially sitting.
In turn, Deters disagreed that Lindenschmidt's camera has any bearing. "The other body cameras were turned on too late," he said.
Mathews said he plans to call on an expert to analyze both videos.
Were Officers Hiding What Really Happened?
In a press conference following Deters’ announcement, DuBose’s sister, Terina DuBose Allen, condemned the police report and the other officers involved.
“The second officer was ready to corroborate every lie the first officer (Tensing) said in his report,” she said. “I wasn’t even a big fan of video cams, but now everyday I’m going to be marching for video cams because my brother was being prosecuted for trying to kill a police officer.”
“My brother was going to be just one other stereotype, and now that’s not going to happen,” she concluded her remarks.
Slate magazine senior editor Jeremy Stahl also condemned the police report in the hours following Tensing’s indictment:
The police report and various embellishments or outright lies Tensing’s brothers in arms told in order to back up his account are the clearest evidence supporting Allen’s belief that her brother’s killer would not be facing prosecution without a video.
Deters announced Friday that the grand jury would not file charges against UC officer Phillip Kidd and officer-in-training David Lindenschmidt, who were both on scene at the time of the shooting and are referenced in the incident report. In a statement released Friday afternoon, Deters said:
These officers were totally cooperative in the investigation and consistent in their statements. There was some confusion over the way the initial incident report was drafted but that was not a sworn statement by the officers and merely a short summary of information. When the officers were specifically asked about what they saw and heard, their statements matched Tensing's body camera video.
According to Chief Assistant Prosecutor Julie Wilson, both officers made comments at the scene but, when later interviewed by Cincinnati Police, "neither officer said that they had seen Tensing being dragged."
Is Tensing An Exception To The Rule?
As Mathews' account of his client goes, up until July 18, Tensing had led a rather "unremarkable" career as a police officer. "He has never had any sort of disciplinary action or trouble that I know of," Mathews told Bill Cunningham.
Obviously, that's no longer the case for multiple reasons that make Tensing's case exceptional.
First, it's rare, both in Cincinnati and across the nation, for a police officer who has shot and killed someone in the line of duty to face criminal charges. A recent investigation by WCPO media partner, the Washington Post (also referenced by Stahl), found that thousands of fatal police shootings over the last decade have resulted in only a few dozen officers being charged.
According to that investigation, more than 550 people have been shot and killed by police officers this year alone, while only three officers have faced indictments. Three is also the number of Cincinnati officers indicted in on-duty killings since 2000.
When weighing the national numbers over the past year, that comes to about half of a percent -- half a percent of officers who have shot and killed a person have faced a criminal charge.
Tensing makes four -- .7 percent.
In other words, that Tensing was charged in the first place in itself is remarkable, not to mention that a grand jury has charged him with the highest possible crime.
Convictions are even rarer, and Washington Post data show that the few officers who are actually convicted serve relatively little time behind bars. Of the three CPD officers indicted in fatal on-duty shootings, none was convicted. Deters has also said that, during his tenure as Hamilton Co. prosecutor, he has never seen a police officer charged with murder.
But Tensing might be an exception here, as well. Criminal defense attorney William Welsch told WCPO that's at least partially because the discrepancy between the police report and the video footage makes Tensing look like "he's trying to cover up what he did."
If Welsch is right in his prediction that a murder conviction is likely, Hamilton County Municipal Court itself would also become exceptional in this case. If Deters gets the life sentence he's hoping for, even more so.
So What Made the Difference?
Again, for Deters, it's all about the video, and the data seem to back him up here, as well.
The Washington Post also found that indictments usually follow unusual circumstances. The shooting victim being unarmed was the most common uncommon occurrence that led to an indictment. Also common among incident leading to indictments was a description of the act as "egregious" or "unexplainable," the study found. Other factors include a victim being shot in the back or incriminating testimony from other officers.
Last but certainly not least of these unusual circumstances, in Tensing's case, the study also found that allegations of a cover up (such as those made by DuBose's sister and others) and - yep - video footage of the killing often led to an indictment.
Perhaps with this in mind, the wheels are already in motion to implement a body camera program for city law enforcement, Cincinnati Police Chief Jeffrey Blackwell said Wednesday.
Ultimately, only time can tell how exceptional this case will become. If Deters gets his way, this case could become one for the law review books.