There will be no civil rights indictment of Minneapolis police officers Mark Ringgenberg and Dustin Schwarze in the Jamar Clark case — a legal decision as controversial as it is inescapable. In the end, after months of investigation, the FBI, the U.S. attorney and the U.S. Department of Justice concluded that there was not enough evidence to show the two officers had willfully deprived Clark of his civil rights.
U.S. Attorney Andrew Luger and others involved in the monthslong investigation are to be commended for the care they took with this case. Instead of just reviewing the facts already gathered, they interviewed and re-interviewed witnesses, tracked down phone records to see who the two officers called after the incident and even retained their own federal medical examiner to review evidence. They met with Clark’s family before anyone else to personally review their findings. That is the kind of care and transparency that should provide confidence in the final outcome. Two investigations led by experienced and tough-minded prosecutors have failed to show, in any convincing way, that Jamar Clark was murdered in cold blood while handcuffed, as some have maintained.
Frustrations remain with this case and so many like it around the country. But it is unfair to say, as some community activists have, that nothing has changed. This last investigation was conducted by a Justice Department led by the first African-American woman to hold that post, in the administration of the nation’s first African-American president. Some things have changed. Does more need to happen to improve police-community relations, especially in the black community? Wholeheartedly, yes.
The road to equity has been too long, and it hurts the heart to hear the weariness in the voice of Nathaniel Khaliq, a longtime, respected leader in the black community, when he recounts previous efforts, followed always by more tragedies. “I’ve been out here battling a long time for justice,” Khaliq said during a news conference that followed one by Luger. Khaliq, who led the St. Paul NAACP to a national award in 2010 for working to address the way African-American young people were treated by St. Paul law enforcement authorities, said it has all been tried. “The main theme has always been dialogue,” he said. There has been training and more training. A civilian review board. Meetings with every level of government official over the years. “That didn’t take care of the problem,” he said. “So here we are in 2016. I’m a tired old man.”
That level of disillusionment must be acknowledged and addressed. And yet, there also must be acknowledgment that the legal standard here was one of the highest required: evidence beyond a reasonable doubt that the officers’ use of force was objectively unreasonable, that they acted with specific intent to break the law. As Luger said, it is not enough to show that officers made a mistake, acted negligently or exercised bad judgment. Just 61 seconds elapsed from the time Ringgenburg and Schwarze arrived on the scene, confronted Clark, took him to the ground for refusing to show his hands, got into a scuffle that put Clark within reach of Ringgenberg’s gun and shot him in the head at close range. Witnesses interviewed could not agree on whether Clark was handcuffed, or if he was, whether it was from in front, behind, standing or on the ground. That is not the kind of case that results in convictions.
Nekima Levy-Pounds, the head of the Minneapolis NAACP who recently left her law post at the University of St. Thomas, called on politically inclined people to run for office to change the status quo. That’s an excellent idea. But when Levy-Pounds calls, as she did Wednesday, for people to “not cooperate with evil,” when her group rejects a meeting with Luger and others to begin again the hard work of reform, when Raeisha Williams, a candidate for City Council in Clark’s Fifth Ward, says “We demand justice. … If we don’t get it inside, we’re going to take it to the streets,” they are setting the stage for conflict rather than cooperation, for divisions that will grow more bitter, not less.
The reality is, much is changing. The body cameras that officers soon will wear may well provide evidence that was lacking in previous cases. The governor on Tuesday signed into law a bill that will provide millions of dollars in funding to address disparities. The FBI and the U.S. attorney ended their news conference with a pledge to work with the community to find “a Minnesota solution.”
That will take hard work on the part of the entire community to try — once again — to collaborate on a greater good for all.