Another prosecution for murder involving an on-duty white police officer who killed a black suspect during a legitimate enforcement interaction is once again ripping through our nation.
The bodycam footage reveals the events leading up to the shooting, but due to the physical nature of the violence when the deadly shot was fired, it is unclear exactly what happened. What we do know is this: University of Cincinnati Police Officer Ray Tensing stopped a car for failure to have a front license plate. In the exchange with the driver he asks repeatedly for his driver’s license, which is never produced. The driver has had numerous citations in the past for suspended license and traffic violations, but nothing of a serious criminal nature. The officer is wearing a bodycam, but at the most critical time it is difficult to tell what happened when the officer shot the driver. The officer claims he was dragged and fired one round, which struck the man in the head.
The prosecutor made it clear in a press conference that he believes the officer murdered the unarmed driver. One thing is very clear from the video: The common denominator in almost all police shootings and use-of-force incidents that led to the suspect’s death is non-compliance. Non-compliance with police has led to every high-profile death from Ferguson to Cincinnati.
Let me be very clear here: I am not saying that this was a “good shoot.” Firing a weapon at a guy fleeing a traffic stop for a misdemeanor is not justified if that is all there is. But I don’t know what evidence the prosecutor has that would justify a murder charge, and we will have to wait to find that out.
There are so many issues at play here that I fear the 25-year-old officer is facing a stacked deck. I watched the press conference when the prosecutor, Joe Dieters, made statements that made me wonder if there is an upcoming election in his future. He actually referred to the stop for the license plate violation as “chicken crap stuff” and said that the officer should “never have been a police officer.”
Anyone who has been a cop knows that making traffic stops for minor violations is what is known as “self-initiated activity” and, until recently due to the political climate, was considered good solid police work. It is the minor violations that lead to discovery of criminal activity and apprehension of fugitives, and this used to be hailed as good solid police work. Now we have a prosecutor demeaning those stops in front of the national media. Let me be clear once again: That is truly one of the most ignorant statements I have heard from someone involved in the law enforcement profession since the state attorney in Baltimore made her ridiculously political and self-serving comments while announcing her decision to arrest six police officers for a litany of crimes regarding the death of Freddie Grey.
I would like to know what the prosecutor based his insulting and demeaning statements on regarding the officer, who had a total of one year experience with the University Police Department. Did he have a past history of excessive force? Did he display poor and unreasonable judgement? Or does it just make for good press and a great sound bite for another pandering political animal.
I honestly do not know what was in the heart and mind of the officer who made the decision to use his weapon and end a life. But I do know this: The average salary level for a police officer in the state of Ohio is between $40,000 and $50,000 annually. Except for the major cities, which run their own police academies, the state of Ohio only requires 604 hours of basic training to become a police officer and, incredibly, only four hours of continued training is required per year once certified.
How this officer was trained in use of force and firearms will become a key issue in this case—and if those in positions of power truly want to improve policing, they should put their money where their mouth is and provide a solid training regimen for the men and women who lay their lives on the line. It could prevent needless deaths of not only citizens, but of police officers.
All of law enforcement is facing unprecedented scrutiny from the public, the police agency and local, state and federal governments. Officers must be more careful than ever before in terms of officer safety—that means not just physically, but emotionally and ethically as well.
Randy Sutton is a 33-year law enforcement veteran and the national spokesman for the American Council on Public Safety (www.defendingtheshield.org). He served 10 years in the Princeton (N.J.) Police Department and 23 years with the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department, retiring at the rank of Lieutenant with numerous awards for valor, lifesaving, community service and exemplary service. Sutton has trained thousands of U.S. law enforcement officers and is the author of True Blue: Police Stories by Those who Have Lived Them, A Cop’s Life: True Stories from the Heart Behind the Badge, True Blue: To Protect and Serve and The Power of Legacy: Personal Heroes of America’s Most Inspiring People. Reach him via his website at www.thepoweroflegacy.com.