Editorials

How body cams are supposed to work

Former University of Cincinnati police Officer Ray Tensing pleaded not guilty to murder and manslaughter Thursday in the shooting death of motorist Samuel DuBose.
Former University of Cincinnati police Officer Ray Tensing pleaded not guilty to murder and manslaughter Thursday in the shooting death of motorist Samuel DuBose. The Associated Press

Another day, another argument for body cameras, and for tough, uniform policies to make them work.

The footage released Wednesday of a white Ohio police officer shooting to death a 43-year-old unarmed black man at a traffic stop is the latest proof that we urgently need better oversight of law enforcement.

Ray Tensing, a now-former University of Cincinnati police officer, had claimed that Samuel DuBose had forced him to open fire on July 19, when Tensing noticed his missing front license plate and pulled him over. DuBose, he said, had nearly run him down.

But, as has repeatedly been the case, from the chokehold death of Eric Garner last year in New York to the eventually fatal traffic stop this month of Sandra Bland in Texas, the police account didn’t square at all with videotaped footage.

As DuBose rummages for his driver’s license and then explains that he doesn’t have it with him, Tensing, audibly impatient, says: “Well, until I can figure out if you have a license or not, go ahead and take your seat belt off for me,” and grabs the door handle.

“I didn’t even do nothing,” DuBose replies.

“Go ahead and take your seat belt off,” the officer insists, yanking the door. DuBose, obviously offended, holds the car door shut.

“Stop,” Tensing says. “Stop!” And then, as the camera wobbles, he aims his revolver at DuBose and fires.

It happens that fast. The car rolls, DuBose dead in the driver’s seat, still in his seat belt. And as the Honda with the missing front plate slows to a stop, the officer’s lie is instant. “I thought he was gonna run me over,” Tensing says.

The vast majority of officers aren’t like this. They avoid lethal force unless there’s no choice. “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,’” Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Deters told a news conference.

But the grand jury in Ohio did the right thing, indicting Tensing on murder and manslaughter charges, leaving his fate in the hands of a judge and jury. Incidents such as this don’t keep surfacing unless checks and balances are insufficient. A Washington Post analysis in May found that of 385 incidents this year in which civilians had been fatally shot by law enforcement, only three had resulted in the officer being charged with a crime. All three had been videotaped.

California communities are scrambling to outfit departments with body cameras. But law enforcement lobbyists have so far blocked statewide policies for their use. State lawmakers need to develop body cam laws that will equip large and small departments, create sensible rules for public access and thwart bad cops who try to game the system. We haven’t a day to lose.

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