Thoughts on the Sam DuBose Settlement
Last week, we won a big settlement in Cincinnati for the family of Sam DuBose. In July of 2015, University of Cincinnati police officer Ray Tensing shot and killed Sam DuBose during a routine traffic stop. Sam, a Black man, was unarmed. Tensing, a white officer, wrote 81% of his traffic tickets to African Americans, who make up 45% of the Cincinnati population.
The university settled for $5.3 million — a figure that includes half million dollars in scholarships to ensure Sam’s children, when they are old enough, can attend University of Cincinnati for free.
Eventually there will be a memorial to Sam on campus remembering Sam’s love of music, and the family has been invited to participate in Community Advisory meetings aimed at creating comprehensive reform in the university’s police department.
By all measures, it is a strong settlement. The pay-out will help ensure a future for Sam’s children, as will the promise of a free college degree. The swiftness of the settlement — coming just six months after the shooting and before we filed a lawsuit — shows the university was willing to take responsibility for the actions of their officer, and they’ve already started making changes to the campus police force.
But when a reporter asked me if the family was happy with the settlement, I said “no.” The family is not and should not be happy with a settlement — not at $5 million, and not at $50 million. There is no happy ending here, as no sum can bring back Sam.
At this point, it’s not about being happy; it is about using Sam’s legacy to make sure this type of violence doesn’t happen to someone else. It is about sending a message that institutions that permit racial bias to infect their ranks do so at great financial risk. From that perspective, this settlement is an important victory.
Nonetheless, there is more work to do.
After this case, I’m more convinced than ever that body cameras are an important tool which, if used properly, can help mitigate racial discrimination in law enforcement. The camera didn’t stop the tragic shooting of Sam DuBose, but it did reveal the truth about what happened. Even with a body camera, Tensing created a web of lies to justify his shooting within seconds of murdering Sam. Almost as troubling, a fellow officer (who, unbelievably, is still employed by UCPD) backed up Tensing’s lies, at least at first, until he was confronted with the undeniable truth of the video.
Without the camera, there would have been no way to contest the officers’ fabricated police report, and I am certain that Sam would have been identified as “the aggressor who forced the officer to shoot in self-defense.”
Had the UC police department routinely audited their officers’ video, they would likely have discovered a pattern of racial bias in Tensing’s police work. I have no doubt that departments across the country will look at what happened in Cincinnati and use the lessons learned in the DuBose case to inform their own reform efforts.
I will be redoubling my efforts to advocate for police body cameras.
And sadly, there are still other fights.
In Savannah, Georgia, I’ll be fighting for the memory of Mathew Ajibade who was tied to a restraining chair, tortured, and left to die by Chatham County Sheriff’s Deputies. They also lied about checking on his condition, going so far as to fake log entries to indicate they checked on Mathew when they did not.
In DeLand, Florida, I’ll be fighting for Sean Grant who survived being shot multiple times by a police officer, only to be charged with aggravated assault himself. They were charges fabricated for the purpose of covering up an unjustified officer-involved shooting. Again, we found lies and, we believe, evidence of a destroyed video that would have shown the lack of justification for the officer’s shooting. We won an acquittal for Sean in the criminal court, and soon we be fighting to hold the police department accountable.
As a criminal defense attorney, over the last 35-plus years, I’ve seen the criminal justice system work disproportionately against Black defendants. In the last few years, due to cell phone videos and body cam videos, it has become increasingly clear to all of us that the bias in the justice system is the same bias that is still deeply rooted in our entire society. I hope the silver lining of all of these tragedies is that we are finally forced to address the problems, rather than ignore them.
I’ve been honored that the families of Sam DuBose, Mathew Ajibade, and Sean Grant have come to me to take on their fight. When I started my career as criminal defense attorney, I had no idea that it would lead to the opportunity to be a civil rights lawyer as well. But now that it has happened, it seems like it is what I’ve always been meant to do.