Editorial: Use the Tensing case to demand change

Leaders need to speak for peaceful reforms
Posted at 11:35 AM, Jun 27, 2017

This divided community is again grappling with the indecision of another divided jury.

It's an emotional time, and a time for leaders to step up with the words and actions to move the community forward in a peaceful, but determined, way. They need to listen to the angry and disillusioned and work with other leaders and those in the community to help us come together and figure out what we can learn from Sam DuBose's death.

Former University of Cincinnati police officer Ray Tensing’s second trial ended as the first one did. The jury was unable to reach a consensus on whether he committed a crime when he shot and killed Dubose as that fateful traffic stop went terribly wrong. That meant a hung jury and a mistrial.

Sam DuBose should not have died. And the fact that Tensing is still free doesn’t feel right to many. Lots of people have already reached their own verdicts. But the now 24 people who listened to days of testimony and evidence, followed by days of deliberation, could not agree. And like it or not, that is the justice system in this country.

It’s important to note what should be obvious. Justice begins with assuming a person accused of a crime is innocent. He must be proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Reasonable doubt – that's a high standard to meet.

The charges still stand

Also, Tensing was not acquitted. He still faces charges of murder and voluntary manslaughter. It will be up to the Hamilton County prosecutor’s office to decide whether he will be tried again, or whether the charges will be dropped or changed. Convicting a police officer – or anyone – of murder is, like reasonable doubt, a high bar to reach.

If the prosecution decides to move ahead with a new trial, then Joe Deters and his staff should think hard about whether a murder charge still makes sense after two trials. Is there any indication that another jury would reach a different conclusion than the first two?

There is more to come in this story. That makes it even more important for leaders in government, law enforcement, politics, community and activist groups to find the right level-headed words and actions.

Leaders speak for nonviolence. They also demand restraint on the part of police.

The larger story

The Tensing incident is part of a much bigger picture. Cincinnati has become part of a broader issue of how police deal with problems in the community, and minority communities in particular.

We still have problems with police escalating encounters until they turn violent or lethal. Police training should emphasize ways to de-escalate situations. It needs to deal effectively with "the fear factor," both the fear black people may feel when approached by police and any fear or bias that may affect police interactions with people of color. 

We still have problems with how police respond to outbreaks of crime. Tensing was a University of Cincinnati police officer working under an agreement with City of Cincinnati police to patrol outside of campus as a response to off-campus crime. That was a mistake and it's since been corrected.

Part of the strategy was to pull people over for minor violations and then look for other crimes. That’s an ineffective and intrusive form of policing that can lead to racial profiling and community distrust.

The problems in this community are greater than this one tragic incident. While the DuBose family wants justice for their own, even a guilty verdict won't bring Sam DuBose back and would do little to heal the community.

More change is needed in systems, procedures and training. That, in turn, can change how police respond in the field.

The words of leaders

Some recognized and spoke about the bigger picture immediately after the mistrial was declared.

Robert E. Richardson, president of the Cincinnati branch of the NAACP, said this:

“The Cincinnati NAACP will be joining with other groups in the community to demand systemic and real change.”

Cincinnati City Council member and candidate for mayor Yvette Simpson, said:

“This issue doesn’t just affect our city; it is happening across our country. The system needs to change. We can make that change happen.”

Eddie D. Hawkins, a Cincinnati police officer and president of the Sentinel Police Association, said:

“We must work together to hold people accountable and ensure our community, our city, our officers and our judicial system are free from racism and treat matters fairly.”

These are the words of leaders who understand that real change is difficult and takes time. But it can happen when they work peacefully and consistently for it.