The fact that officers Dustin Schwarze and Mark Ringgenberg are not being charged with a crime in the death of Jamar Clark does not diminish legitimate and long-standing community concerns regarding police brutality and bias in Minneapolis. But the existence of those broader grievances also does not change the facts in the Clark case or justify criminal charges against the officers.
Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman has gone to unprecedented lengths to hold himself accountable for the decision, including forgoing a grand jury proceeding and laying out for public view the mountain of evidence he reviewed. That was a much-needed move. Grand juries too often have provided an insulating layer that does not serve the transparency so badly needed in such cases.
Deciding whether using deadly force in the line of duty is justified is often difficult. Officers put themselves in hazard’s way daily, making split-second decisions in situations most of us will never face. They must be able to protect themselves and others in the course of their duties.
The facts surrounding such incidents are usually messy, and the Clark shooting is no exception. The videos — and there are many — fail to show exactly what happened in the 61 seconds that elapsed between the time police arrived and Clark was shot.
Freeman said that Clark, 24, had beaten his girlfriend and was interfering with the paramedics called to treat her. Fearing for their safety, Freeman said paramedics locked themselves in the ambulance and radioed for help. Toxicology reports show that Clark was legally drunk and had THC in his system at the time of his death.
After Ringgenberg and Schwarze arrived, Freeman said Clark repeatedly refused to take his hands out of his pockets. Ringgenberg took Clark to the ground, preparing to handcuff him, but in the scuffle the officer fell atop Clark with his back to him. Ringgenberg said he felt Clark’s “whole hand” on his gun. Clark’s sweat DNA was found on the gun, holster and Ringgenberg’s duty belt. Forensic reports, photographs and an autopsy found no evidence that Clark had ever been handcuffed, and the cuffs had no sweat DNA on them. Schwarze, who had been holding the handcuffs, dropped them to the ground and drew his gun, aiming at Clark’s head and warning him that he would shoot if necessary. According to Freeman’s dramatic account, Clark said, “I’m ready to die,” and Schwarze fired.
Black Lives Matter representatives immediately challenged Freeman, and at the news conference held to announce the decision, Raeisha Williams, communications director for the Minneapolis chapter of the NAACP and a City Council candidate, warned that “if the city burns, it’s on your head.” No. If the city burns, it will be on the heads of those who do the burning. To date, BLM has done the difficult work of advancing its agenda while refraining from violence. It is more important than ever that protests remain peaceful.
The erosion of trust in law enforcement is real in some parts of our community and is rooted in incidents that predate the events of the night in November 2015 when Clark was killed. But Mayor Betsy Hodges and Police Chief Janeé Harteau have shown over time that they are committed to improving police-community relations, building a more diverse police force, prioritizing anti-bias and de-escalation training, and expanding the use of body cameras.
Ringgenberg and Schwarze acted in accordance with their training and the circumstances they encountered. They responded to a scene where a reportedly violent man refused to cooperate and, when they attempted to handcuff him, was close enough to take control of an officer’s gun. Those facts meet the standard for use of lethal force as interpreted by courts across the country.
There is little comfort in those legal terms. A young man lost his life, leaving behind grieving family members and a community struggling to come to grips with yet another tragedy on city streets. But Freeman made the right decision based on the evidence and the law, and he did so with transparency and integrity.