When it was announced that the investigation into Jamar Clark’s homicide would proceed to a grand jury, I became concerned. Grand juries usually indict in regular criminal cases, but rarely in officer-involved shootings.
This time cannot be business as usual. This moment cries out for transparency and accountability — for justice. We can provide that by reforming the grand jury process for officer-involved shootings, fixing the criminal sanctions system and addressing the debilitating racial gaps that plague our state.
The independent investigations being conducted concerning Clark’s shooting are significant. The U.S. Department of Justice agreed to review the case within two days of Jamar’s death, and the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension is reviewing a Minneapolis case for the first time in 15 years. These are important accomplishments.
In too many recent cases — from Eric Garner to Tamir Rice to Mike Brown — grand juries have refused to indict in officer-involved killings. Grand juries are secret and almost always do what the prosecutor wants.
We have better options than a grand jury. The prosecutor could take responsibility for the charging decision and skip the grand jury. This approach offers accountability and transparency. California has ended grand juries for cases involving the use of deadly force by officers.
Appointing a special prosecutor is another option. If a grand jury is used, the prosecutor should be independent, maintain all transcripts and release all evidence. New York has named a special prosecutor for police deadly-force cases.
In 1990, Tycel Nelson, 17, was shot by a Minneapolis police officer. I was involved when the community rallied and protested, as is happening now. The county attorney knew business as usual would not work and appointed a well-respected lawyer, Billy McGee, as special investigator to prepare the case for the grand jury. Although the officer was not criminally charged, the involvement of a special investigator gave the community some confidence in the fairness of the process.
In addition to reforming the grand jury process, we must fix our broken criminal justice system. Activists are shining a light on the moral failings of mass incarceration and the need for police accountability.
Policymakers have an important role. At the federal level, we should reclassify certain nonviolent drug possession felonies as misdemeanors and eliminate the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine. We should ban the Bureau of Prisons from doing business with the private prison industry. I’ve introduced legislation that addresses both of these issues — the RESET Act with Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., and the Justice Is Not For Sale Act with Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.
We should condition federal law enforcement grants on efforts to improve police-community relationships. In our communities, we should demilitarize the police and keep weapons of war off city streets. Body camera programs should be implemented to increase accountability and to protect civilians and police officers.
Let’s acknowledge that even the best-trained police can’t change the conditions under which officer-involved shootings often occur. We must get serious about creating opportunity for all, especially given the stunning economic gaps between blacks and whites. Communities of color suffer from intolerably high unemployment and unaffordable housing.
State legislators have made a tremendous start for formerly incarcerated individuals by “banning the box” on employment forms and clarifying the law on how to expunge criminal records. We must restore voting rights to ex-felons.
Police-community relationships are toughest in the most economically depressed neighborhoods. Minneapolis is no exception. In north Minneapolis, unemployment and poverty are high, and pay and test scores are low. We have among the largest racial disparities in the nation. Sadly, Jamar Clark’s story is not that surprising.
Leaders and activists throughout our community are beginning to work together to fix these opportunity gaps. Gov. Mark Dayton has called for a special session to address these gaps. Activists are advancing a working families agenda in Minneapolis.
When I sat with Jamar Clark’s loved ones, they made it clear through their grief that they do not want his death to be in vain. They want their loss to help move our community forward.
We must seek justice and launch a reform movement to prevent future tragedies.
We have no time to waste. Let’s join hands for fairness and economic opportunity for all our children.
Keith Ellison, a Democrat, represents Minnesota’s Fifth District in the U.S. House.