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This Prosecutor Took Cincinnati's Black Community By Surprise After Charging A Police Officer With Murder

Joseph Deters has a strained relationship with the Cincinnati black population, activists told BuzzFeed News. But they said Wednesday's announcement of murder charges against a police officer over the killing of an unarmed black man has been welcome β€” and surprising β€” news.

Posted on July 29, 2015, at 6:47 p.m. ET

Hamilton County Prosecutor Joseph Deters after speaking to reporters Wednesday.
John Minchillo / AP

Hamilton County Prosecutor Joseph Deters after speaking to reporters Wednesday.

Hamilton County Prosecutor Joseph Deters was scathing in his assessment of a University of Cincinnati police officer charged Wednesday in the death of an unarmed black man. "This is the most asinine act I’ve ever seen a police officer make,” Deters said, excoriating officer Ray Tensing for the "totally unwarranted" fatal shooting of Samuel Dubose during a traffic stop on July 19. "He should have never been a police officer.”

After a year of high-profile cases around the nation involving police relations with the black community, news of the indictment β€” and Deters' harsh words β€” quickly made headlines. But in Cincinnati itself, the news was greeted with relief, and surprise, by black community leaders.

"Deters has historically been at odds with the black community," Aaron Roco, an organizer with Black Lives Matter Cincinnati, told BuzzFeed News. "We're no fans of Joseph Deters. We're happy with what he's done today, but that may be the only thing."

Deters, a Republican, has represented Hamilton County as prosecuting attorney since 2004. He also previously held the position from 1992 to 1999, before serving as Ohio's treasurer. His office did not respond to a request for an interview with BuzzFeed News for this article.

During his tenure, Deters' opponents have criticized him for having a brash manner β€” and accused him of using his office to pursue political vendettas and saying inflammatory things about black defendants in the press.

"The relationship between the black community and Joseph Deters is strained, at best," Janaya Trotter Bratton, criminal justice chair for the Greater Cincinnati Chapter National Action Network, told BuzzFeed News. "The press conference he gave today is usually the press conference he gives on day one with a black defendant."

Earlier this month, a group of black people allegedly beat up a white man in a Cincinnati public square. Although Deters said there was no evidence the attack was a hate crime, the prosecutor's fiery rhetoric was again on display when he announced the grand jury charged the three defendants.

"They will hurt you. They will hurt your grandma,” he said, calling the defendants soulless and unsalvageable. β€œThe root cause of this is there’s no discipline in the homes, they don’t go to school, you know, they live off the government, no personal accountability, and they just beat people up for no reason, and it’s disgusting.”

In an editorial, the Cincinnati Enquirer slammed Deters for the remarks. "This is a disturbing set of worn stereotypes for an enforcer of law and order to utter," the editorial board wrote. "He should take care not to use his bully pulpit to feed racial discord in our community."

A protester outside Deters' office on July 23.
John Minchillo / AP

A protester outside Deters' office on July 23.

Franki Kidd started a blog called Citizens Against Joe Deters after her son received a 20-year sentence for bank robbery in 2007. "Deters did a press conference and convicted my son in the court of public opinion before he went to trial," she told BuzzFeed News. "He has a history here of doing that in cases with black defendants and people from certain zip codes β€” letting tapes get out, letting facts leak," she claimed.

However, Kidd said she had stopped updating her blog earlier this year out of respect for Deters' family after the prosecutor's 23-year-old son was beaten by five black men in an alleged racially motivated attack in May 2014.

"I don't care if it's white on black or black on white," Deters said of his son's attack. "When the motivation to commit crime is race, it's just disgusting."

Four days after the attack on Deters' son, media were broadcasting footage of the beating. One of the men who was charged pleaded guilty in January and was sentenced to three years in prison.

Before Wednesday, Deters' office had refused to release footage from the body camera Officer Tensing wore during his fatal encounter with Dubose out of a fear of prejudicing the grand jury investigation. That decision had infuriated many black activists, who feared that officials were attempting to cover up the incident.

David Singleton, executive director of the Ohio Justice and Policy Center, told BuzzFeed News Deters acted prudently by withholding Officer Tensing's video while the grand jury was meeting. Singleton, a black attorney who has worked in Cincinnati since 2001, said he hopes Deters uses his "good handling" of the Dubose indictment to build a more constructive relationship with the black community.

"You could see on Deters' face how impacted he was by this shooting," Singleton said of Wednesday's press conference. "I hope that people will take that as genuine and be able to look beyond what you don't like in him and see the possibility of someone who can do the right thing β€” and did so here."

Trotter Bratton, with the local National Action Network chapter, said she, too, was impressed by the quick indictment, but remains wary of Deters.

"There's a level of distrust, but overall I think that justice was served. So I won't take that away from him," she said. "An indictment against a police officer is nothing to sneeze at."

John Minchillo / AP