Vargas: Cincinnati shooting shows value, limitations of body cams as investigative tool


If you haven’t seen the recent body cam video of University of Cincinnati Police Officer Ray Tensing shooting a driver during a car stop, you should take a look.

Warning: It’s very disturbing. The Hamilton County prosecutor filed murder charges against the officer and shortly afterwards released the video to the public.

My first thought was, “That looks really bad.” A second and third look pushed it to, “What was he thinking?” After evaluating the video in slow motion, I can see why it needs to be looked at by a jury.

The officer pulls over the driver of a vehicle for not having a front license plate. The prosecutor says it was a “chicken crap stop.”

From what I know, it is still a legal vehicle stop. There’s been a lot of good police work that resulted from “chicken crap” car stops. I recall Timothy McVeigh was caught after an Oklahoma state trooper pulled him over for not having a front license plate.

The DA has made other comments that are really inappropriate for a case that’s still yet to be tried, but then again he’s a politician. No one should be surprised.

The officer asks the driver for his license. He doesn’t have one. Happens all the time. The officer sees a bottle of gin on the driver’s floorboard. Still that is nothing unusual. The officer asks the driver to step out of the car. Still lawful if the officer deems it necessary.

Throughout the contact, Officer Tensing demonstrates no observable malice. It’s a cordial conversation with a driver who doesn’t have a driver’s license.

It’s at that point that things start to go sideways. The driver starts his car and in fractions of seconds the scenario begins to spin out of control.

Why did the suspect start his car? I would guess probably to try and get away. The fact he not only started the car but put it in drive are strong indicators this was going to turn into a pursuit.

People will run from the police. It happens every day. It’s dumb, it’s stupid but that’s what police officers have to work with every day. They spend a career dealing with people who have spent a lifetime making poor decisions. Trying to run from the police is just another of the many bad decisions they make.

I’ve known many cases where officers have had to chase down drivers who started their cars and taken off. They usually end up in a pursuit with the suspect recklessly endangering the public, sometimes with tragic results. It’s a low-payoff strategy as the drivers are almost always caught.

It does get your heart pumping and in your mind you immediately question why is this person running?

Are they dangerous? Do they have a gun? Did they just commit a serious crime? Is there a kidnap victim or a dead body in the trunk?

I’ve been there. All those thoughts take place in fractions of a second. I know what it feels like. Your heart starts pumping, your adrenaline is going wacko and suddenly your brain engages and tells your body to respond. Hopefully, with proper training and experience, you quickly assess and respond accordingly.

I’ve tried to see things through Officer Tensing’s eyes as he processed the events. I timed it. From the point the car is started to the time the driver is actually shot is approximately 2.5 seconds as best I can tell.

Not much time to form the specific intent to murder or react to any potential threat.

The district attorney has looked at the evidence and formed the opinion it was murder, or at the least voluntary manslaughter. Apparently he couldn’t find any clear legal justification for the use of deadly force.

Officer Tensing tells fellow officers the driver was trying to take off and his arm got caught in the vehicle and he was dragged. The video is difficult to follow but it appears he gets his arm clipped by the car as he shoots. He does end up on the ground. Is that enough to justify the use of deadly force?

In police blogs I’ve seen experienced officers commenting on both sides of the incident. Some have been critical of the officer, others have been more reserved and state the obvious: “The video doesn’t tell the whole story.” All the commentators agree the driver’s actions triggered the officer’s response.

One thing is certain: This and other incidents demonstrate the value of body cameras as an investigative tool in police use-of-force cases. It also demonstrates the limitations of body cameras. In this case, it has provided a tool for investigators to assess the events and compare them to the officer’s narrative.

Whether the officer’s response was a matter of perception or ineptness a jury will now decide. I’m certain they will have a lot more than just a video to consider when rendering their judgment.

Joe is a retired Anaheim Police Department captain. You can reach him at