No charges against officers in Jamar Clark shooting

Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman. Photo by Sarah McKenzie

Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman announced Wednesday that he won’t be filing charges against Minneapolis police officers Mark Ringgenberg and Dustin Schwarze, both white, in the fatal shooting of Jamar Clark, a 24-year-old black man, in North Minneapolis on Nov. 15.

The incident sparked an outpouring of grief and intense protests throughout the city, including an 18-day occupation of the MPD’s 4th Precinct police station.

Freeman said DNA from Clark found on Ringgenberg’s gun was the most compelling piece of evidence gathered during the investigation. Ringgenberg said Clark was grabbing for his gun when the officer was on top of him, trying to restrain him. Schwarze then ordered Clark to remove his hand from the gun, but Clark refused, Freeman said.

Clark reportedly said: “I’m ready to die,” when asked to remove his hand from the gun, Freeman said.

Based on a Supreme Court legal standard, Freeman said he determined Schwarze was acting reasonably when he decided to use deadly force and shoot Clark because he feared for his partner’s safety. Clark was shot in the head.

Freeman was questioned why there were no fingerprints on the handgun. He responded: “Fingerprints are a lot harder to get off of a gun normally.”

Freeman also said he concluded that Clark was not handcuffed during the incident based on the evidence he reviewed. Eyewitnesses have offered conflicting accounts of whether he was handcuffed. Those who said Clark was handcuffed also offered different perspectives of how he was handcuffed.

Police said Clark was interfering with paramedics who were treating his girlfriend, identified as RayAnn Hayes, who he allegedly assaulted. When officers arrived, they asked Clark to remove his hands from his pockets and he refused.

Hayes, however, told WCCO on Thursday that Clark wasn’t her boyfriend and didn’t assault her.

Freeman showed video of Ringgenberg grabbing Clark and throwing him to the ground — footage that angered Clark supporters in attendance at the news conference.

He said the whole incident took place in 61 seconds.

“If Clark had taken his hands out of his pockets, he’d be alive today,” Freeman said during a conference call with reporters.

Freeman said he hopes the incident leads police and community leaders to have more conversations about better ways for officers to de-escalate situations without turning to deadly force.

The Hennepin County Attorney’s Office has released several videos and other evidence collected during the investigation to the public.

Minneapolis NAACP President Nekima Levy-Pounds and other leaders with Black Lives Matter Minneapolis challenged Freeman’s narrative during the press conference and said they were “shocked” to see how Clark was thrown down to the ground by Ringgenberg. Many Clark supporters left the press conference in tears.

“We’re leaving here with more questions than answers,” Levy-Pounds said, who also criticized Freeman for failing to give more wait to non-law enforcement witnesses.

“We came today expecting there would be no charges filed in this case. We know that there has been a pattern of a failure to hold officers who kill civilians accountable in the state of Minnesota, and today is no exception,” she told reporters after Freeman’s news conference. “It’s very unfortunate to see the accounts from the witnesses on the North Side of Minneapolis be discounted in a forum like this. If anyone was playing close attention to the narrative that Mike Freeman put forward he did not give credence to the things that the witnesses had to say.”

Mica Grimm of Black Lives Matter Minneapolis said elected officials will face challengers in the next election.

“I hope that Mike Freeman knows that he is on notice. That he will not be getting reelected — that he needs to start looking for a new job because we are coming for him,” she said. “We are coming for every elected official that cannot support us and seek justice and truth. … Any elected that does not believe that black lives matter is on notice. They will be out.”

Freeman said he planned to run again when asked by a reporter during a conference call.

Mayor Betsy Hodges, who has been criticized by activists for her response to protests following Clark’s shooting death, said it’s a “hard day for everyone in Minneapolis.”

“Many people are feeling hurt, anger, disappointment, frustration,” she said in a statement. “My heart breaks for the loss of Jamar Clark’s life, and for the pain felt by everyone involved in this incident. There is a tear that has ripped through our community, one we cannot sew back up. And together as a city and a people, we can walk through this tear to build what we all want — a city that is safe and equitable for everyone.”

She also reiterated her support for peaceful protests and thanked Freeman for “his transparency, his professionalism, and his willingness to be publicly accountable for his decision.”

Minneapolis Police Chief Janeé Harteau, who has also faced sharp criticism from Black Lives Matter leaders, said protecting public safety, including those expressing their First Amendments rights, is the city’s top priority.

“This is a tragedy for everyone, including the Clark family and our officers,” she said. “We value our residents exercising their constitutional rights while also being safe and being treated with dignity and respect. Our highest priority will be keeping everyone — demonstrators, the public and police officers — safe as the city reacts to this decision.”

Hodges and Harteau have also requested a separate federal investigation into Clark’s shooting death, which involves the Justice Department’s Civil Rights division and the U.S. Attorney’s Office. 

The federal investigators are reviewing evidence to determine if Clark’s death involved any violations of federal criminal civil rights statutes.

Freeman’s decision has sparked commentary from many other community leaders. Protesters also returned to Plymouth Avenue Wednesday and hundreds demonstrated in Elliot Park and at the Government Center.

Congressman Keith Ellison, a North Minneapolis resident, commended Freeman for his transparency and explaining his decision to the public.

“This decision to decline charges does not absolve our broken criminal justice system. It does not foreclose federal action or civil action for violation of Jamar Clark’s civil rights. It does not change the persistent, systemic disparities facing the residents of North Minneapolis, some of which are the worst in the nation,” he said.

He went on to emphasize the importance of police body cameras, which the MPD is in the process of rolling out, and better training and policies to emphasize “de-escalation tactics.” 

“Jamar Clark’s death has brought pain to his family, friends, neighbors, and community. Nothing about County Attorney Freeman’s decision to decline criminal charges diminishes the importance of Jamar’s contributions in this world or the sadness of his death,” he said. 

Charles Samuelson, executive director of the ACLU-MN, said Clark was one of 13 people killed by law enforcement in Minnesota in 2015. He said people of color are killed by officers at much higher rates than white people.

“We are glad that County Attorney Freeman has published all of the videos and the evidence used in this case. It is important that there is transparency in the process the county attorney used in their decision,” Samuelson said. “However, Jamar Clark was shot within 61 seconds of officers arriving on the scene. It is unsettling that he was shot so quickly. Officers should have allowed for more time to address the situation fully.”

State Rep. Raymond Dehn (DFL-59B), who represents downtown and North Minneapolis neighborhoods, said he’s upset that Freeman declined to file charges. 

“I’m asking those frustrated and angry with this decision to join me in focusing on positive actions that will bring about the changes of existing systems we’ve been seeking. We all know that the criminal justice system disproportionately negatively impacts communities of color, but now isn’t the time to weaken our message with violence,” he said. 

Minneapolis City Council Member Alondra Cano (Ward 9) also criticized Freeman’s decision not to indict the officers. She said she believes the officers weren’t justified in shooting Clark, who was unarmed and restrained, “in the head within 61 seconds of arriving on the scene.”

“I want to thank the community for their bravery in the continuing to stay engaged in the struggle for Justice for Jamar despite criticism and political pressure, and despite shocking white supremacist violence,” she wrote on her Facebook page.

North Minneapolis-based Neighborhoods Organizing for Change also condemned Freeman’s decision in a statement.

“Fidgeting, having one’s hands in one’s pockets, and staring off into space are not criminal offenses. These are the reasons the officers gave for escalating so violently and immediately upon encountering Jamar Clark. This is the same language used to criminalize young black men in everything from low-level arrests to fatal police shootings all over the country,” the organization said. “… Freeman’s decision not to charge these officers is a political choice that shows that police officers are still above the law, and that their fear of young black men will continue to be an acceptable legal basis for killing them.”

City Council Member Blong Yang (Ward 5), who represents the area where Clark was shot, said Freeman’s decision to release evidence gathered during the investigation is a “huge step towards a fairer, more transparent justice system.”

“I am deeply saddened by this news. My deepest condolences to the Clark family and the families of the officers involved. Nobody wins and it may take some time for our community to recover. I am committed to working towards making sure that incidents like these no longer happen in our city,” he wrote on his Facebook page. “I pray for healing in our City. I have faith that the arc of the moral universe, though long, bends towards justice.”