Cincinnati officer indictment: Seeing is believing

Is it possible only a video can overcome the 'blue wall of silence?'

Anyone who might still be harboring doubts about the effectiveness (and necessity) of police body cameras need only watch what spewed out of the camera attached to University of Cincinnati police officer Ray Tensing, who was arraigned on a murder charge today. The recording of Officer Tensing, who is white, fatally shooting an unarmed Sam Dubose, who is black, during a routine traffic stop is nothing short of horrific.

Mr. Dubose, 43, was pulled over for driving without a front license plate and, as the video documents, his only "crime" appears to be a failure to produce a driver's license. When Mr. Tensing asks him to take off his seat belt and the driver instead appears to begin slowly roll forward, the officer reaches in with one hand and shoots Mr. Dubose in the head with the other.

Rarely do videos appear more damning. Small wonder Hamilton County Prosecutor Joseph T. Deters called it "without question a murder" and the "most asinine act I've ever seen a police officer make." And it's not as if the southwestern Ohio county where whites outnumber African-Americans 3-to-1 is a bastion of liberalism or anti-law enforcement fever. This is the first Cincinnati police officer ever indicted for murder.

But here's the other lesson that Baltimore needs to take away from the Tensing case: If not for the video, it's highly unlikely that the officer would be facing a murder charge at all. The initial police report from the July 19 incident quotes a second police officer, Phillip Kidd, who claims that Mr. Dubose's 1998 Honda Accord had dragged Mr. Tensing. Indeed, the officer who interviewed Mr. Tensing for the report, Eric Weibel, also noted that the shooter appeared to have been dragged. "Looking at Officer Tensing's uniform, I could see that the back of his pants and shirt looked as if it had been dragged over a rough surface. I suggested to Officer Tensing that he should go to the hospital for an examination," he wrote.

That narrative might back up Mr. Tensing's own version of events — he claimed in Mr. Weibel's report that he was nearly run over — but the video shows that none of it ever happened. That two fellow officers might have provided false collaboration for Officer Tensing is nearly as chilling as the shooting itself. At one point in the video, Officer Tensing appears to be discussing how he was caught up in the car and dragged with a second officer who responds in a conspiratorial, "Yeah, I saw that."

That there exists a "blue wall of silence" when it comes to police officers and their unwillingness to get a fellow officer in trouble is not surprising. But to do so when they know a body camera is capturing the event as well as their conversations afterward? That suggests either rampant stupidity or a behavior that is so ingrained as to equal a criminal enterprise with or without the Baltimore-style "Stop Snitching" video messaging.

Why are police so rarely prosecuted in the wake of shootings of dubious justification? The Tensing video and police report provides a textbook example but not an unusual one. Bad police work has been recorded in the Sandra Bland stop and the teen pool party in Texas, the shooting of an unarmed black man in North Charleston, S.C. and the killing of Eric Garner in Staten Island, N.Y. and that's just in the past year. Most produced no indictments.

At least Officer Vincent Cosom, the Baltimore police officer caught on a blue-light camera beating a man at a North Avenue bus stop in June of 2014, got a six-month jail sentence on an assault charge. Yet no apparent action has been taken against the two fellow officers who watched and did nothing about it. Will the Cincinnati officers who showed such blind support for Mr. Tensing get a free ride, too?

Police officers are better than this, they are more honorable and law-abiding than this. But until more of them demonstrate the courage to stand up to criminal behavior by fellow officers, their credibility is going to suffer, and the distrust in communities like Baltimore and elsewhere will continue to run deep — perhaps overcome only when they can produce corroborating video.

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