Eleven months of investigations came to an end last week when the Minneapolis police chief decided not to discipline the two white officers who killed an unarmed black man — Jamar Clark — last November on the city’s North Side. Totally cleared, the officers can go back patrolling our streets.
Those officers confronted Clark in a way that led to the shooting. And if other officers think they can use the same tactics, our city has lost some of its safety for everyone.
The root of the problem is that the story has two halves and that public officials — federal, state and local — have spent their time and energy on the second half. That’s the half that began while cops and Clark were tussling on the ground and Clark reached for an officer’s holstered gun. The officers, fearing for their own lives, decided to shoot Clark before he could shoot them. That decision, terrible as it was, seems justified, and that’s why the officers are now free men.
The first half, however, the confrontational half, largely overlooked, was even more important for future police work. The fact is the officers took a calm situation and recklessly turned it into combat. Otherwise, the shooting would not have occurred. And by not imposing discipline explicitly for that half, Chief Janeé Harteau could be assumed to approve.
Recent recruits are now being trained to de-escalate conflicts when possible. But lectures and training may not speak as loudly as the example of confrontation by two veterans in the Clark case.
Three points tell the first half of the story:
• The officers, Dustin Schwarze and Mark Ringgenberg, moved quickly against Clark even though, by the time they arrived, the 24-year-old Clark was standing out of the way with hands in his jacket pockets on a November night, causing no trouble. He wasn’t totally innocent. He had pestered two ambulance attendants as they cared for a 41-year-old woman for whom Clark seemed to have had some affinity. “Interfering” was too strong a word. Clark never laid a hand on the attendants. They nonetheless got unnerved and called police. By the time the cops arrived, the woman had been loaded into the ambulance and the doors locked. Any danger had passed.
• The officers showed no concern for keeping peace on the street, which could reasonably be considered their first responsibility. Instead they risked confronting a solitary black man in full view of a gathering crowd late on a Saturday night on Plymouth Avenue. The cops could have stepped back and kept watch on the ambulance. But their priorities were otherwise. One officer could be seen in a video pulling on a pair of tight dark gloves, ready for action, as they strode toward Clark. All of this information can be found in videos and reams of data posted on the county attorney’s website.
• The officers didn’t place Clark under arrest and didn’t tell him why they were giving orders and getting rough with him. They told him to take his hands out of his pockets, which he ignored. Even after they had pulled his hands out of the pockets and found no weapon, the cops persisted in subduing their suspect, who needed no subduing. But Clark, drunk and stubborn, wouldn’t hold still for handcuffs. So officer Ringgenberg pulled him down.
All of this led to the shooting. But nothing in the Jamar Clark case violated department policy, according to Chief Harteau. And Mayor Betsy Hodges concurred. That would seem to create policy.
This tragedy can happen again.
Gregor Pinney, of Minneapolis, is a retired newspaper reporter who worked for the Star Tribune and its predecessor publications.