For the second time this year, authorities say there is not enough evidence to charge two white Minneapolis police officers in the November shooting death of a black man after a confrontation.
Wednesday’s announcement in a just-completed federal investigation angered activists who protested 24-year-old Jamar Clark’s death for weeks and remain outraged that both probes, the other released in March by a state prosecutor, came to the same conclusion.
“We are tired of what is happening, and what feels like the Jim Crow North,” Minneapolis NAACP President Nekima Levy-Pounds told reporters after U.S. Attorney Andrew Luger said there was insufficient evidence to support criminal civil rights charges against the two officers.
The officers, Mark Ringgenberg and Dustin Schwarze, were trying to arrest Clark when he was shot once in the head Nov. 15. He died a day later.
A key issue in both investigations was whether Clark was handcuffed when he was shot. The federal and state probes came to the same conclusion: Clark was not.
“Given the lack of bruising, the lack of Mr. Clark’s DNA on the handcuffs and the deeply conflicting testimony about whether he was handcuffed, we determined that we could not pursue this case based on a prosecution theory that Mr. Clark was handcuffed at the time he was shot,” Luger said at a news conference.
Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman declined on March 30 to file criminal charges against the officers, also citing forensic evidence and conflicting witness accounts. Federal authorities went a step further, seeking an independent review of the Hennepin County autopsy by the Office of the Armed Forces Medical Examiner at the Department of Defence.
Luger said “highly contradictory” testimony from witnesses would make it too difficult to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Ringgenberg and Schwarze acted outside the law.
The news came on the same day that Florida prosecutors announced a Palm Beach police officer has been charged with manslaughter and attempted murder for the fatal shooting of a black man.
Corey Jones, a 31-year-old musician who was legally armed, was shot to death last October on the Interstate 95 highway.
He had been waiting for a tow truck after his car broke down.
Documents filed by prosecutors revealed that Nouman Raja — a plainclothes officer driving in an unmarked car — approached Jones without identifying himself as an officer.
Raja asked Jones several times if he was “good,” before abruptly demanding he put his hands in the air, according to an audio recording of the interaction. Raja allegedly then fired three shots, waited 10 seconds, then fired another three.
Prosecutors allege that Raja lied to a 911 dispatcher, whom he called 30 seconds after firing the last round into Jones’ body.
“I came out, I saw him come out with a handgun,” Raja reportedly told the dispatcher. “I gave him commands, I identified myself, and he turned, pointed the gun at me and started running. I shot him.”
According to the Washington Post’s database which tracks police shootings, Jones was one of 990 people fatally shot by police officers in 2015. Raja, however, is only the 12th officer to face charges related to such shootings that year.
Jamar Clark’s death set off weeks of protests, including a tent encampment set up outside the police department’s 4th Precinct on the city’s north side, located blocks from the shooting. The encampment was taken down 18-days later.
According to a Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension investigation, Clark refused to remove his hands from his pockets. The officers tried to handcuff him but failed. Ringgenberg wrestled Clark to the ground but wound up on his back atop Clark and felt Clark’s hand on his weapon, according to the investigation.
Schwarze then shot Clark in the encounter that lasted barely more than a minute from the time the officers arrived.
“There are no winners here.” Luger said. “A young man has died. And it is tragic.”
Schwarze’s attorney, Fred Bruno, noted the two independent investigations reached the same conclusion, saying: “The chances of that happening are pretty slim unless the facts are the facts and the officers are justified in doing what they did.”
Ringgenberg’s attorney, Bob Sicoli, said he hoped a pending internal investigation by the police department would be over quickly.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Minnesota and the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division conducted the federal civil rights investigation on the request of Mayor Betsy Hodges, and were to determine whether the officers intentionally violated Clark’s civil rights through excessive force.
That’s a high legal standard because an accident, bad judgment or simple negligence is not enough to bring federal charges.
With the federal investigation completed, Hodges said the city will proceed with the internal investigation.
“I understand this decision has struck at the heart of a painful tension in the community,” Hodges said in a statement Wednesday. “What we can do now is move forward together to build a city that is safe and equitable for everyone.”
Minneapolis Police Chief Janee Harteau said she hopes the public will accept the conclusions of the investigations.
“I have full faith in this independent investigation,” Harteau said in the city’s statement.
Lt. Bob Kroll, president of the Minneapolis police union, said Wednesday’s announcement confirms what the union has said from the start — “that the actions of these officers were justified.”
“This was an unfortunate incident that did not need to happen. Clark ultimately dictated the circumstances of the situation, and the officers’ actions were necessary to prevent injury or death to themselves or others,” Kroll said in a news release.
The DOJ is also reviewing how the city responded to the protests. Though largely peaceful, one demonstration on Nov. 18 included some skirmishes between officers and protesters.
At least one federal lawsuit has been filed accusing officers of excessive force during that demonstration.
A few days later on Nov. 23, five demonstrators were also shot and lightly wounded in what a county prosecutor said was a racially motivated attack. Four men — three white, one Asian — were charged. Those cases are pending.
Clark’s death spurred state lawmakers to examine longstanding complaints of racial inequities, particularly on the impoverished north side of Minneapolis. Advocates requested more investment in minority-owned businesses and a summer job program for black teens, and lawmakers this spring set aside $35 million to tackle racial disparities.
Associated Press writers Doug Glass in Minneapolis and Gretchen Ehlke in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, contributed to this report.
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