Can the University of Cincinnati Police Learn From the City's Police?

(Photo: AP/John Minchillo)

Cincinnati Police Chief Jeffrey Blackwell speaks with a protester outside the Hamilton County Courthouse following the announcement of murder and manslaughter charges against University of Cincinnati Police Officer Ray Tensing on July 29.

The Cincinnati Police Department has taken long strides since 2001. Once infamous for provoking a riot that rocked the city for days, the department has created a civilian review board that handles complaints against police officers, and has made citizen engagement the number one priority for police officers. In recent years, the department has emerged as a national model for community policing—so much so that on May 19, newly minted attorney general Loretta Lynch made Cincinnati the first stop on her National Community Policing Tour.

The University of Cincinnati’s Police Department, sadly, is another story. After a recent killing of a black man by a University police officer—the second such incident in four years, and one that yesterday led to the University policeman’s indictment for murder—the public university is now seeking mentorship from the Cincinnati Police Department.

On July 19, 43-year-old Samuel Dubose was fatally shot in the head by University of Cincinnati police officer Ray Tensing after a traffic stop. It had started around 6:30 p.m., when Tensing noticed Dubose driving without a front license tag. Tensing pulled the victim over, notified him that he was driving without a front license tag, and asked to see his driver’s license. Dubose did not produce a license but Tensing noticed a bottle of alcohol on the floor; Dubose handed him the bottle of liquor with no protest. Dubose told the police officer that if he ran his information, he’d see that he was a licensed driver.

On the body camera video that prosecutors released yesterday, Tensing does not go to check on Dubose’s driving status. Instead, he informs the victim that until he can figure out if he has a license or not, he’d need to take off his seat belt. Tensing then reaches to open the car door after which Dubose cries, “I ain’t even do nothing!” It appears that Dubose is trying to take off his seat belt, when he lifts his foot off the brake causing the car to move slightly forward. Tensing shouts, “Stop! Stop!”—then immediately shoots Dubose in the head, killing him.

Initially, Tensing told 911 dispatchers that he had shot Dubose because the car had dragged him. The video shows that nothing even remotely close to that happened. 

During Wednesday’s press conference in which Hamilton County prosecutor Joe Deters announced he was indicting Tensing for murder, Deters said, “This office has probably reviewed upwards of hundreds of police shootings, and this is the first time that we’ve thought this is without question a murder.”

Cincinnati, Ohio, which sits across the Ohio River from Covington, Kentucky, is a racially diverse city of 300,000. In April 2001, the city was rocked by riots spurred by the killings of 15 black men at the hands of police over a six-year period. After a federal investigation, an agreement between the Cincinnati Police Department and the Department of Justice, and another between the city, the ACLU, and Black United Front, led to substantial reforms in the city’s police practices.

Within city limits is the University of Cincinnati, the second largest university in Ohio. UC boasts an enrollment of 40,000 with 8.4 percent of students identifying as black or African American. Like many universities, UC operates its own police department. The UC Police Department go through the same training as Cincinnati city police officers, and its website describes the relationship between city police and campus police as close:

“UCPD works closely with the Cincinnati Police Department (CPD) to prevent crime within and around the campus community. Together, UCPD and CPD have partnered with UC's Institute of Crime Science to utilize real-time data to proactively develop strategies to keep our campus and community safe.”

Dubose’s killing stirred up old feelings within Cincinnati’s black community. In 2011, 18-year-old Everette Howard died after being Tasered by UC police officer Richard Haas. The officer claimed that Howard had failed to obey a direct order. The 18-year-old had graduated from high school the previous spring and was attending the college preparatory classes at the university before starting his college career in Kentucky. In 2013, the Howard family received a $2 million settlement.

After Dubose’s death, University of Cincinnati President Santa Ono said it was time for UC police to review their use of force as well as other policies. At a joint press conference between Ono and Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley, the mayor announced that the University was considering joining the collaborative agreement with the ACLU and Black United Front signed by CPD in 2002, and that UC police officers would receive mentoring from their city counterparts.

“A pullover related to a license plate should not—in the normal course of events—lead to lethal force,” said Cranley. “Therefore, reform is in order.”

UC police officers will be mentored by a city police department that has government officials singing its praises. Cincinnati has come a long way from the pre-riot days. City Police Chief Jeffrey Blackwell is a decorated police veteran who has only been in Cincinnati since September 2013, but has already implemented community engagement policies.

But even this celebrated police department is not without police killings. On June 9, 22-year-old QuanDavier Hicks was shot and killed by Officer Doris Scott after Scott and another officer answered a complaint call. The police alleged that Hicks pointed a rifle at them, but witnesses on the scene disputed the police account and said that Hicks was complying with police orders. Hicks’s grandmother, Ruby Hicks, said police killed her grandson for no reason.

After a camera-testing period ended in December of last year, Chief Blackwell said he’d like to have the entire force fitted with body cameras—in the hope, perhaps, that cameras will allow officials to clear up disputes between civilians and police officers.

So far this year, Cincinnati police have killed two people—both black men. In 2014, CPD was responsible for the deaths of three black men, and in 2013 CPD killed a white man. These numbers are similar to the number of deaths of black people at the hands of police in Baltimore or Kansas City. After extensive reforms—including a robust complaint process—why aren’t Cincinnati’s numbers of police-involved deaths lower?

Part of the problem may be stereotypes and bias. The Perception Institute—an organization dedicated to researching the mind in order to reduce discrimination linked to gender, race, and other identities—has found a link between stereotypes and police brutality.

According to a study done by the institute, “when police officers are primed to think about crime by words such as ‘violent, crime, stop, investigate, arrest,’ they more quickly focus on Black male faces than comparable White male faces.” Perceived stereotypes and racial bias play a large role in how policing works. Departmental reforms are unlikely to change implicit biases—something that is ingrained in the brain.

For now, Cincinnati police officers will work with University of Cincinnati campus police departments to implement changes. And if the university follows in the city’s footsteps, the reforms are likely to be good—but not good enough. 

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