As a growing number of police departments are equipping officers with digital body cameras, the so-called blue wall of silence, the unwritten rule that officers never speak ill of one another to outsiders, is being tested perhaps like never before. The police-involved shooting in Cincinnati – and specifically, the role of two officers who may have lied about what happened to their colleague – is a case in point.
Ray Tensing, who was a University of Cincinnati police officer until this week, appeared at his first court hearing Thursday after being indicted for murder and voluntary manslaughter in the death of an unarmed motorist on July 19. He pleaded not guilty.
In the case, Mr. Tensing, who is white, alleges that Samuel DuBose, a black man who had been stopped for a missing front license plate, put his life in danger by starting the car, which began to roll forward. The officer said he feared he was going to get pulled under the car.
His account is corroborated by testimony from two other officers. In a report written the day after the shooting, they said that Tensing had small injuries that supported his assertion that he was somehow dragged.
But prosecutors say Tensing’s body camera suggests another scenario. In the video, Mr. DuBose is starting the car and slowly rolling away when Tensing appears to suddenly fire a single shot. Tensing, officials say, fell backward after firing his gun, causing some scuffs on his shirt and pants. DuBose appears nonconfrontational in the video.
It is these sorts of discrepancies that America is now parsing as it watches police interactions more closely than ever – in some cases, with the help of body cameras.
“This whole incident [in Cincinnati] is a classic illustration of the problem, where you have [other officers] reflexively supporting the officer [Tensing],” says Samuel Walker, a professor emeritus of criminology and a police accountability expert at the University of Nebraska in Omaha. “There’s a lot of concern about police lying – what’s called ‘testi-lying’ in court – and there are a lot of people who don’t believe that occurs, and if it does, it’s just a couple of bad cops. This incident dramatizes the seriousness of the problem, and it comes as no surprise to a lot of us who have been working on police misconduct.”
According to a recent presidential task force on policing reform, body cameras should be part of a major thrust toward making police work more transparent and, thus, more trustworthy in the eyes of Americans, especially in poorer, crime-ridden areas.
Moreover, body cameras are widely seen as an effective way to illuminate incidents in order to protect both citizens and police officers. Video has been crucial in some investigations into questionable policing that led to citizen deaths over the past year, though it's also not always been conclusive.
In that light, the Cincinnati shooting is one of a number of emerging cases that could show how body cameras can help reform police culture, even in the midst of what Cincinnati Police Chief Jeffrey Blackwell called the “most difficult policing environment in the history of our nation.”
A tendency among police to cover up bad behavior in the ranks has a long history, and many Americans see such impulses as understandable. Police, after all, do a difficult, dangerous job for relatively little pay and even less thanks. Attacks on police integrity are often viewed by union leaders as baseless griping by miscreants.
But cop solidarity has also gone wrong. That fact has come to light in places like North Charleston, S.C., where an officer has been charged with murder in the shooting of an unarmed black man. In the aftermath of the shooting, other officers arrived more concerned about the officer involved in the incident, even as no one administered medical care to the man on the ground, who had been shot in the back.
Officials acknowledged that only a cellphone video led to the arrest of the officer in North Charleston.
Similarly, immediately after the Cincinnati shooting, officers listened to Tensing characterize the danger he faced and describe his alleged injuries. Nobody offered medical care to the man who had been shot in the car.
“Officer [Phillip] Kidd told me that he witnessed the Honda Accord drag Officer Tensing, and that he witnessed Officer Tensing fire a single shot,” Officer Eric Weibel’s report reads.
Tensing's lawyer, Stewart Mathews, says the former University of Cincinnati officer is innocent.
"He was afraid that he was going to lose his own life," Mr. Mathews told reporters. "He thought he was going to be run over by Mr. DuBose's car. It sped away."
When asked if Tensing, backed up by other officers, was trying to mislead investigators, Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Deters said, “Yes.” He added, "I think he was making an excuse for a purposeful killing."
To be sure, body cameras are far from a panacea for police misconduct. And video isn’t always decisive. Despite cellphone video showing the chokehold death of Eric Garner last year, a grand jury decided that the officer was not responsible.
But video can also give prosecutors the hard evidence they need to override deflections by police officers who go beyond the constitutional protections they enjoy. Those protections include US Supreme Court rulings that give officers wide leeway to make mistakes as they make split-second life-or-death decisions.
"People want to believe that Mr. DuBose had done something violent towards the officer – he did not. He did not at all. I feel so sorry for his family and what they lost, and I feel sorry for the community, too," Mr. Deters said.
The shooting has also put a spotlight on the fractured nature of policing in the United States, especially as it relates to university police departments and police training. Some university police focus mostly on misbehaving college students in rural towns. Others, like those for the University of Cincinnati, have different responsibilities, including protecting the campus – and tuition-paying young people – from local ruffians.
But whatever department an officer serves, the “blue wall of silence” has emerged partly out of necessity, as police officers create a tightknit fraternity for their safety and job protection.
In some recent police shootings, police union heads, who represent officers, have blamed the media, social activists, and citizens themselves for the problems, rarely putting the blame on officers.
For example, after defending the officers' actions in the shooting of 12-year-old Tamir Rice in Cleveland last year, union head Jeffrey Follmer said the officers bore no responsibility, even though Tamir was shot within two seconds of them pulling up to the park where he was playing with an Airsoft gun.
According to a Washington Post database, at least 550 Americans have been shot and killed by police officers in 2015. Many of those shootings were undoubtedly justified, but just three officers have been charged with crimes – two of the cases being in Cincinnati and North Charleston, where video evidence has been key.
Police reformers have recently focused on creating policies that would more closely track police shootings and other incidents, as well as reform police union contracts that give officers far more protection than a citizen would have in the wake of misconduct allegations.
“We have to bring some sunlight into this, expose this, and discuss the cost, because there are social costs, an impact on police-community relations, and a financial cost,” says Dr. Walker at the University of Nebraska. “This is an extremely important incident, and it highlights a pervasive problem.”