A prosecutor said Wednesday that he will not use a grand jury to determine whether two Minneapolis police officers should be charged in a black man's November shooting death, saying it was a difficult decision but one that will bring more accountability to the process.
Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman said he will make the charging decision himself in the death of Jamar Clark. He also said he'll no longer use grand juries to consider future police shooting cases in the county -- noting that grand juries have been used there for more than 40 years in such cases, resulting in no indictments of officers.
"The accountability and transparency limitations of a grand jury are too high a hurdle to overcome," Freeman said. He did not say when he would make his decision in the Clark case, but had previously hoped for the end of March.
Community activists viewed the move by Freeman as a victory and credited pressure from protesters.
"This isn't just for Jamar," said Miski Noor, an organizer for Black Lives Minneapolis. "This is humongous. It's for everybody in Minneapolis."
The 24-year-old Clark was shot Nov. 15 after police were called to a report of an assault in which Clark was a suspect. Police have said that when they arrived, Clark was interfering with paramedics who were assisting the female victim. Police said officers tried to calm him, but there was a struggle and he was shot. But some people who say they witnessed the shooting have said Clark was handcuffed.
Clark died a day later.
Protesters took to the streets in response and began an encampment at the police precinct on Minneapolis' north side that lasted 18 days before authorities broke it up. Protesters demanded that a grand jury not be used in the case, taking issue with the secrecy of the process and arguing that grand juries rarely indict officers.
Grand juries have declined to indict police officers in the high-profile deaths of blacks in other cities, including the fatal 2014 shootings of 12-year-old Tamir Rice in Cleveland and 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and the 2014 chokehold death of 43-year-old Eric Garner in New York.
In Minneapolis, Freeman initially said he'd use a grand jury in the Clark case. But on Wednesday, he said he's been looking at the issue of grand juries for 16 months and had been working on reforms even before Clark's death.
He said while there's some appeal to having 23 randomly selected citizens weigh evidence, the secrecy and lack of accountability in the process troubles him. He added that the law is applied the same whether a grand jury or a prosecutor examines a case.
Freeman, like a grand jury, will be weighing evidence behind closed doors. But while the names of grand jurors are kept secret, Freeman is an elected official, so citizens could hold him accountable at the polls.
When asked if she thought Freeman could be fair, Minneapolis NAACP President Nekima Levy-Pounds said she was cautiously optimistic. "The public elected him to uphold the law in a fair, just and transparent way, and we expect him to do that in this instance," she said.
Freeman will be deciding whether to bring charges against officer Mark Ringgenberg, who is white, and officer Dustin Schwarze, whose race has not been released.
Ringgenberg's attorney, Robert Sicoli, said he believes Freeman's office will evaluate the case professionally and make a decision "based on the evidence, not on politics or anything else."
An attorney for Schwarze didn't immediately return a phone call for comment.
The FBI, U.S. Attorney's Office in Minnesota and Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division are conducting a separate federal criminal investigation to determine whether police intentionally violated Clark's civil rights through excessive force.
The Justice Department is also reviewing how the city responded to protests after Clark's death.