Deference, Self-Defense and the Death of Sam Dubose


In the last year I’ve offered an explanation of police brutality and community conflicts that, I believe, transcends the simple “racist cop/deserving subject” paradigm (here, here and here). My goal is to try to understand the complex nature of what I see as a conflict cycle existing between police forces as systems, and subjugated communities, especially communities of color. In essence, I combine classic sociological and social psychological research with the Thomas Theorem to suggest that the perceptions of the police as racist and abusive on the part of the community increases the likelihood that they will be resistant during interactions with police. This, in turn, reinforces the perception of the police that aggressive, even abusive, tactics are justified. The result is a conflict cycle in which individuals in the community and police officers establish exclusionary and malignant group identities with regard to the out-group.

I believe we can see some of these dynamics in action with the Sam Dubose tragedy. Again, writing this off as a simple case of “racist cop shooting a black man” only reinforces the very prejudices so instrumental to the reproduction of these tragedies. For my part, I’m interested in the approximately four seconds between the moment Officer Tensing grabs the door handle and ultimately draws his gun to shoot Sam Dubose. During this brief moment of the interaction we see Dubose taking exclusively defensive measures while Tensing was, predictably, assertive, escalating the conflict to the point where he chose to pull his gun. At no time did Dubose pose a direct threat to Tensing. However, he was unwilling to comply to officer commands, making an assertive defense. Officer Tensing’s responses can be interpreted as an attempt to gain control of the interaction by escalating invasive tactics. There may have been a response to Dubose’s assertive self defense in which, during that split second, Dubose’s actions were perceived as threatening.

Now I must point out, it is impossible to interpret motive or intent in such a brief clip. This is especially true when one considers that the given video footage does not allow for an examination of the agents’ faces and expressions. Inferences are being made based on actions. Tensing’s voice is unstressed, professional right up to the very end, indicating to me that escalating a conflict cycle was not his intent.  Dubose is clearly stressed, but then, so am I when I’m pulled over. For Dubose, however, there appears to be a different level of fear in play, motivating his decisions. The resulting action/reaction ended in a thoroughly avoidable tragedy. Of course, this is speculation offering “a way” of understanding the interaction. I think I’m offering valid speculation, but there is really no way for me to prove that validity. As such I recognize that what I offer is subject to alternative speculation.

For the sake of analysis, I want to begin at the moment Officer Tensing reaches for the door handle and asks Dubose to step out of the car. Dubose resists, reinforcing that he didn’t do anything (of course, he had: no front plate and no license). Tensing feels justified in his request, but for Dubose, the car is his security. The pitch of his voice increases and he closes the door as Officer Tensing tries to open it. To Tensing, this is an example of non-compliance. Getting his subject to comply is his responsibility as a police officer. For Dubose, stepping out of the vehicle is, apparently, perceived as stepping into a dangerous situation. His past and his associations may have reinforced to him that outside of the car was where “men like him” get beaten. For Dubose, holding that door closed was an act of self defense. For Tensing, it was an act of resistance.

Holding the door closed in an act of self defense.
Holding the door closed is an act of self defense and resistance.

Tensing responds by reaching into Dubose’s car. Dubose’s other hand appears to be on the shift. He is not making any moves that an outside observer may consider threatening. Of course, those observing from the outside may have a different interpretation of events. More likely, however, Tensing was responding in such a way as to enforce compliance to his authority. By reaching into Dubose’s car, however, Tensing is invading his subject’s space, escalating the perception that he is a threat.

Is Dubose assertively defending himself by pushing or swatting Tensing's hand?
Is Dubose assertively defending himself by pushing or swatting Tensing’s hand?

This is the crucial moment in which the interaction moved from escalation to assault. It is unclear exactly what happened inside the car. We hear Dubose protesting and Tensing shouting “Stop!” At some point the car starts to move. Regardless, Tensing pulls his gun. Was this a response to a threat perceived from Dubose’s assertive defense? Or was this Tensing’s desperate attempt to assert his authority? It is unclear.

Dubose takes a defensive position.
Dubose takes a defensive position.

Now Dubose is panicked. Perhaps this is a response to the gun being drawn; it is unclear. It is clear, however, that Dubose raises his arm in defense. How was this interpreted by Tensing at the moment? Was it perceived as a threat?

The rest of the video is difficult to interpret, the end result, however, was clear. Dubose  was killed for what appeared to be no reason. Officer Tensing certainly didn’t wake up that morning thinking he was going to shoot someone. The beginning of the video does not show anything outside of expectation for a typical traffic stop. In that few seconds, however, the action/reaction cycle resulted in tragedy. During this three or four second span of time, both people’s pre-conceived notions, status expectations, situational definitions and emotional states established the foundations for a tragic confrontation. This is not a simple “racist cop/threatening suspect” scenario. A simple willingness to communicate intent may have been all that was necessary to have avoided tragedy.

Again, in my opinion, the one responsible for ending a conflict cycle is the person with the power. Officer Tensing needed to recognize whether he was responding to an actual threat or to frustration resulting from his authority being resisted. It is not Sam Dubose’s responsibility to make sure he survives. It is likely that he had nothing to fear from Officer Tensing (at least as far as we could tell from the interaction). But it was clear that he was afraid. Had Tensing taken it upon himself to assuage that fear, which would have required a different kind of training and a different kind of mindset, the end result could have been more typical of a traffic stop.

Should Tensing, or any police officer for that matter, be empowered to physically force compliance in otherwise non-threatening, non-violent interactions? True enough, a police officer has no way of knowing when or if an interaction is going to become violent, but in most circumstances, the interaction can be controlled. Dubose was pulled over for not having a front plate. A further complication was added when it was discovered that he did not have a license. What was being served by asking Dubose to step out of the car? How did escalating a conflict when Dubose pulled the car door shut, serve the interests of the community?

Also, to what extent does a citizen have the right to defend himself from a police officer? A democracy cannot sustain the principle that police power is absolute. Such is the central tenet of a police state. Fear is not subject to law, nor to deference rituals. Fear is fear, and human beings will react–sometimes with tragic consequences.

We as a society must find ways to re-engage and legitimize the role of the police our most troubled communities. Police must also be trained to de-escalate and reverse conflict cycles first, draw their guns as a last resort. This means training in interpretation of the situation, culturally, emotionally and systematically. It also mean police being honest with how race impacts their decision making.

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