CINCINNATI (Reuters) - A University of Cincinnati police officer was indicted on Wednesday on murder charges in the fatal shooting last week of an unarmed black motorist who was stopped because of a missing front license plate.
Hamilton County prosecutor Joseph Deters called the July 19 killing of Samuel Dubose, 43, “senseless” and “totally unwarranted.”
Ray Tensing, the 25-year-old white officer who shot Dubose in the head, “wasn’t dealing with someone who was wanted for murder,” Deters told a news conference. “He was dealing with someone who didn’t have a front license plate. This is, in the vernacular, a pretty chicken crap stop.”
The incident was the latest in a series of fatal confrontations between law enforcement and unarmed individuals across the United States that have raised questions about the use of deadly force by police, especially against minorities.
Tensing was to be arraigned at 10 a.m. EDT (1400 GMT) on Thursday in the Hamilton County Court of Common Pleas and could be sentenced to life in prison if convicted.
Cincinnati officials braced for possible unrest after the grand jury’s decision was announced, and the university closed down for the day as a precaution.
A racially mixed crowd of about 300 people braved a heavy rain Wednesday evening to attend a peaceful “Black Lives Matter” rally outside the courthouse, where relatives of Dubose and supporters welcomed the indictment but called for punishment of other officers involved in the incident.
Several dozen protesters peeled off from the rally and marched to police headquarters, some chanting, “This is what democracy looks like,” but there were no immediate reports of any trouble.
A body-camera video that Deters played for reporters showed how the traffic stop of Dubose escalated into deadly violence. After failing to provide a driver’s license at Tensing’s request, Dubose tried to prevent Tensing from opening the car door as the officer ordered him to remove his seat belt.
The car started slowly rolling forward as Tensing reached in and yelled for him to stop. The officer then pulled his gun and fired once, killing Dubose.
Deters said Tensing was not dragged by the car, as the officer had reported, but instead he fell backwards after shooting Dubose in the head. Deters said Tensing should have let Dubose drive away as he had his license plate number already.
“I’ve been doing this for 30 years,” Deters said after meeting with Dubose’s family. “This is the most asinine act I’ve ever seen a police officer make, totally unwarranted.”
Tensing “should never have been a police officer,” he added.
Audrey Dubose, the victim’s mother, praised the indictment.
“I’m so thankful that everything was uncovered,” she told reporters. “I thought it was going to be covered up.”
Asked about a second officer who supported Tensing’s account of the incident, Deters said that was under investigation.
Attending Wednesday’s rally, Jeanette Moeller, who went to school with Dubose, called the indictment monumental.
“I believe if it hadn’t been for the body cam, we wouldn’t be here,” she said. “We would be rioting instead of being here doing something great, trying to show some support for the family and to thank Mr. Deters.”
Tensing’s attorney, Stew Mathews, told Fox 19 television in Cincinnati that his client was being “thrown under the bus” by the prosecutor and the school. A second video will show more of the incident, he said, according to Fox 19.
Tensing was fired by the university police on Wednesday, and school officials said they were discussing providing educational support for Dubose’s children.
The incident was the latest in a string of deaths of black men at the hands of police in the past year, including Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, Eric Garner in New York City, Freddie Gray in Baltimore and Walter Scott in North Charleston, South Carolina. Prosecutors brought charges against officers in Baltimore and North Charleston.
Cincinnati was convulsed with riots in 2001 after police shot an unarmed 19-year-old black man who was wanted for traffic violations. The Cincinnati police went through extensive reform after that incident, and an independent agency was set up to handle complaints against the police.
Dubose’s family saw the body camera video on Wednesday for the first time and met with Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley.
Deters said campus security should be taken over by the city police department, whose officers, he said, are better trained.
Dubose’s family has hired attorney Mark O’Mara, who represented George Zimmerman, the Florida man who was acquitted in the 2012 shooting death of black teenager Trayvon Martin.
Reporting by Suzannah Gonzales and Mary Wisniewski in Chicago and Steve Bittenbender in Louisville, Kentucky; Writing by Fiona Ortiz; Editing by Bill Trott, Cynthia Osterman and Ken Wills