MINNEAPOLIS (Reuters) - Two Minneapolis police officers involved in the shooting death of a 24-year-old black man will not be charged, prosecutors said on Wednesday, because evidence showed Jamar Clark was not handcuffed and that he reached for an officer’s gun.
Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman told a news conference that Clark struggled with Officers Mark Ringgenberg and Dustin Schwarze, who are white, and that he was not handcuffed and at one point had his hand on a gun.
Freeman told reporters that the officers said without the use of deadly force Clark would have taken possession of the gun. “Each stated their independent fear of being shot,” he said. “Accordingly, the head of the county attorney’s office has concluded criminal charges are not warranted.”
Freeman made the decision not to charge the officers, bypassing use of a grand jury.
Clark’s shooting came at a time of fierce national debate over the use of excessive force by police, especially against black men. Minneapolis is one of a number of U.S. cities that has seen protests over killings by police.
Activists criticized the decision not to charge the officers and said questions remained unanswered, such as why Clark was shot 61 seconds after police arrived at the scene.
The decision “sends a clear message that the Minneapolis police may act as judge, jury and executioner in interactions with unarmed black men,” said Becky Dernbach, a spokeswoman for the local group Neighborhoods Organizing for Change.
On Wednesday evening, hundreds of peaceful protesters led by activists from Black Lives Matter Minneapolis converged on a central government plaza, chanting “No justice, no peace, prosecute the police,” and waving signs as they marched.
The demonstrators, who filled the plaza, listened to speeches and sang songs. At one point, an organizer recalled a similar rally held in the city four years ago in memory of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black Florida teenager who was shot dead by a volunteer watchman. Later, the crowd repeatedly shouted in unison, “I am a revolutionary!”
Freeman's remarks, interviews that had been conducted, police and autopsy reports and video related to the case were posted on his office's website on Wednesday. (www.hennepinattorney.org)
Fred Bruno, the attorney for Schwarze, who shot Clark, lauded the decision not to charge his client.
“The scientific evidence and objective witness statements now conclusively show that Mr. Clark was neither unarmed nor handcuffed. He had control of an officer’s gun. Officer Schwarze responded in accordance with his training, and as the law required him to act,” Bruno said in a statement.
Bob Sicoli, Ringgenberg’s attorney, said Freeman’s decision was supported by evidence.
“What is a police officer supposed to do?” he said in a telephone interview. “Just imagine you’re on the ground, you can’t get up, somebody has your gun belt and has their hand around your gun and says something to the effect of ‘I’m ready to die.’ That’s every police officer’s worst nightmare. They had to do what they did.”
Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges said she understood the anger of many residents and noted that the U.S. Justice Department and the U.S. Attorney’s Office are investigating the shooting. There will then be an internal police investigation to decide if the officers should be disciplined.
“Today is a hard day for everyone in the city of Minneapolis,” she told reporters.
On Nov. 15, 2015, police said they responded to a request to assist an ambulance that had been sent to north Minneapolis to treat Clark’s girlfriend. Freeman said she had been assaulted by Clark.
Police said Clark was shot during a struggle after he confronted paramedics and impeded their ability help his girlfriend. Clark died the next day.
Freeman said one of the officers tried to handcuff Clark, and DNA evidence showed that in the ensuing struggle Clark got his hand on Ringgenberg’s gun as they both lay on the ground.
“Nothing scares a cop more than somebody trying to take their gun,” Freeman told reporters on a conference call later on Wednesday.
Some witnesses had said Clark was handcuffed or restrained on the ground when he was shot.
Freeman said Schwarze took out his gun, put it to the edge of Clark’s mouth and told him to let go or he would be shot. Freeman said Clark told Schwarze, “I’m ready to die,” but only the police heard the comment.
At that point, Schwarze pulled the trigger but the gun failed to fire because the slide was only partially pulled back, Freeman said. Schwarze fired again after he heard a panicked Ringgenberg urge him to shoot Clark, Freeman said.
Clark’s comments were not recorded. The dash-board video camera on the patrol car did not automatically start because the lights and siren, which trigger it, had not been used due to the nature of the call, Freeman said.
Freeman said Clark’s toxicology report showed a blood alcohol level of .09 and tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the main psychoactive component in marijuana. In Minnesota, a blood alcohol level of .08 is considered driving drunk.
Black Lives Matter activist Johnetta Elzie questioned the pertinence of that information. “This has what to do with the police killing him?! Same script, different dead black body,” she wrote on Twitter.
Additional reporting by Xan Holston, Karen Pierog, Suzannah Gonzales, Anjali Athavaley and Brendan O'Brien; Writing by Ben Klayman and Eric M. Johnson; Editing by Fiona Ortiz, Bill Rigby and Leslie Adler