MINNEAPOLIS – Two white police officers involved in the fatal shooting of a black man last fall will not face criminal charges, a prosecutor announced Wednesday in a decision that drew outrage from community members who said the move showed that the legal system is rigged against African-Americans.
Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman said his decision not to charge the officers in the death of 24-year-old Jamar Clark was based on forensic evidence that showed Clark was not handcuffed and had attempted to grab an officer's weapon, which made deadly force necessary.
Clark ignored warnings to take his hands off Mark Ringgenberg's gun before he was shot and told Ringgenberg and officer Dustin Schwarze: "I'm ready to die," the prosecutor said.
Freeman painstakingly described his decision, starting with police reports and witnesses. Community members who attended the presentation said the prosecutor relied too heavily on police accounts and disregarded what others said they saw.
"This is a fairy tale. None of this happened," said Mel Reeves, an organizer for a group called Twin Cities Coalition 4 Justice 4 Jamar Clark. "It's not justice. It sends us a clear message that the police are above the law."
Police union head Bob Kroll said the public should accept the results of the investigation. He appealed for calm.
"Hostility is going to get all of us nowhere," Kroll said.
Police encountered Clark early on Nov. 15 after paramedics called for help from a scene where they were attempting to treat Clark's girlfriend after she was assaulted. The paramedics said Clark, the assault suspect, was interfering with their work, and they feared for their safety, Freeman said.
When police arrived, Clark kept putting his hands in his pockets and refused orders to show his hands. Officers tried to handcuff Clark but couldn't. The handcuffs were later dropped, Freeman said.
Ringgenberg then took Clark to the ground and ended up on top of Clark, who was lying on his back. Ringgenberg's back was to Clark's stomach, Freeman said.
Ringgenberg felt his gun shift from his hip to the small of his back and reached back and felt Clark's hand on his weapon, Freeman said.
The officer said, "He's got my gun," Freeman said. Schwarze said he put his gun to the edge of Clark's mouth and warned him to let go or he would shoot. At that point, Clark looked directly at Schwarze and said he was ready to die.
Schwarze said the only thing he could do to save everyone in the area was to pull the trigger.
The shooting happened 61 seconds after police first approached, Freeman said.
Freeman called the handcuff question a key issue in the case and went into particular detail. Twenty civilian witnesses gave different versions of whether Clark was handcuffed. Of the 12 who said he was handcuffed, their stories differed and did not match the forensic evidence, Freeman said.
The prosecutor said he does not believe those witnesses were lying, explaining that it's not uncommon for people to have contradictory statements when observing chaotic situations from different vantage points.
Forensic evidence showed Clark had no bruising on his wrists consistent with being handcuffed, and his DNA was not found on the inside of the handcuffs, which were on the ground, Freeman said.
In addition, Clark's DNA was found on Ringgenberg's belt and on the grip of his gun.
"Clark simply could not have been handcuffed when he attempted to seize the gun while they were on the ground," Freeman said.
Freeman, who decided earlier this month against taking the case to a grand jury, faced tough questioning from the public at his hourlong presentation, including a woman who called his account "propaganda."
Investigators had video of Clark's shooting from several sources, but said early on that it did not provide a full picture of what happened. Freeman released the video publicly on Wednesday.
Protesters had demanded that the case not go to a grand jury. Public skepticism over grand juries, which do their work in secret, grew after police officers were not indicted 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, as well as the 2014 chokehold death of 43-year-old Eric Garner in New York.
Mica Grimm, an organizer with Black Lives Matter Minneapolis, predicted that Freeman would not be re-elected.
"We will not stand for this injustice anymore. We will not come down to the government center and be lied to our faces anymore. If we cannot find justice here, we will find it in the streets."
Activists planned rallies in Minneapolis for later Wednesday evening.
The FBI, the U.S. Attorney's Office in Minnesota and the 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. That's a high legal standard because an accident, bad judgment or simple negligence on the officer's part isn't enough to bring federal charges.
The Department of Justice is also reviewing how the city responded to protests after Clark's death.
Clark's shooting sparked weeks of largely peaceful protests in Minneapolis, including an 18-day encampment outside a police precinct.
The unrest over Clark's death also included demands that city and state leaders do more about the persistent poverty seen as the root of racial tensions. The state is considering funneling millions of dollars into job training, loans and other initiatives to help black residents get ahead.