Minneapolis police officers will not face criminal charges for fatally shooting Jamar Clark because they believed he was trying to grab one of their guns, the county prosecutor announced Wednesday.
This announcement came more than four months after Clark, a 24-year-old African American who was unarmed, was shot and killed by one of the officers. Clark’s death in November sparked repeated protests in Minneapolis, and after the decision not to charge either officer, hundreds of people gathered for demonstrations on Wednesday night.
Police said that Clark was the suspect in an assault when he encountered two police officers on Nov. 15, and authorities said he was interfering with paramedics trying to treat that victim when he encountered police.
The two officers involved in the shooting — Mark Ringgenberg and Dustin Schwarze — were placed on leave during the investigation. In a news conference on Wednesday, Mike Freeman, the Hennepin County attorney, said that Schwarze’s decision to fire a fatal shot at Clark was justified because at the time, Ringgenberg was on the ground struggling with Clark and said the 24-year-old was grabbing his gun.
While some witnesses said Clark was handcuffed when he was shot, police had said after the shooting that this did not appear to be the case. Freeman said that a pair of handcuffs were out at the scene, but ultimately said “forensic evidence established that Clark was not handcuffed.”
Freeman said that the investigation determined that Ringgenberg reasonably believed that Clark was grabbing at his gun and attempting to take his weapon, which is why he called on Schwarze to shoot at Clark.
Clark was killed by a single gunshot wound to the head, according to a medical examiner’s autopsy released Wednesday by Freeman’s office. The autopsy report also said that Clark had alcohol and THC in his system at the time of his death.
He was one of 990 people shot and killed by on-duty police officers during 2015, according to a Washington Post database documenting police shootings. He is one of 12 people fatally shot by officers in Minnesota last year, and one of 44 unarmed black men shot and killed by police officers nationwide in 2015.
A review by the Minneapolis Star Tribune conducted last year found that since 2000, at least 143 people have been killed by police in Minnesota and no officers have been charged in any of these deaths.
After Clark was shot, protests began outside a Minneapolis police station. These demonstrations eventually saw a burst of violence, as gunfire near the protests injured five demonstrators, raising increasing concerns about the tense situation occurring outside the station.
Demonstrators said the shooting started after a group of people not involved with the protests were seen recording the scene. When protesters followed the group, a scuffle broke out and shots were fired, they said. The following week, Freeman announced charges against four men in that shooting.
Earlier this month, Freeman announced that he would not use a grand jury to determine whether any of the police officers involved in Clark’s death should be indicted, saying that his office would make the decision. “This is my job and I will do it as fairly as I can,” Freeman said during an earlier news conference. He also said grand juries will no longer be used in such cases in Hennepin County.
Grand juries in other high-profile cases where police officers shot and killed people have come under considerable scrutiny and criticism, particularly during the heightened focus on such killings over the last two years. In some cases, they have been criticized as overly secretive, while others have been critiqued after the fact for unusual proceedings.
Investigators reviewed “several videos” related to Clark’s shooting, but none of these videos captured the incident in its entirety, Drew Evans, superintendent of the state’s Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, said after Clark died. The bureau, which is a part of the state’s Department of Public Safety, investigated the shooting at the request of the Minneapolis Police Department. Their report was sent to Freeman’s office last month.
The ACLU and NAACP filed a lawsuit last month urging state officials in Minnesota to release video footage of the shooting, echoing a call demonstrators made after Clark’s death. These videos included footage taken from a nearby ambulance, a public housing authority camera and a cellphone video recorded by someone in the vicinity, Evans said. Gov. Mark Dayton (D) has said he has viewed the ambulance video and thought it was inconclusive.
Freeman explained his decision and findings in great detail on Wednesday before going on to release video footage and a lengthy series of reports, documents, photographs and other evidence he considered in the case. “This level of transparency is unprecedented,” Freeman said.
Residents unhappy with Freeman’s decision responded quickly Wednesday. Activists with Black Lives Matter Minneapolis, along with others affiliated with other groups, called for demonstrations and marches. Minnesota State Rep. Raymond Dehn, a Democrat who represents part of Minneapolis, was critical of the decision not to seek charges, but called for demonstrators to react peacefully.
“I’m upset that he chose not to seek charges and know many others in our community will be too,” Dehn said in a statement. “I’m asking those frustrated and angry with this decision to join me in focusing on positive actions that will bring about the changes of existing systems we’ve been seeking.”
Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges said Wednesday at a news conference that her “heart breaks” for Clark’s death. She said authorities knew most demonstrators intended to be peaceful, but said officials were prepared for protesters who were less peaceful.
On Wednesday evening, hundreds of demonstrators gathered at the Hennepin County Government Center to protest Freeman’s decision, the Associated Press reported.
During his announcement, Freeman outlined a narrative of what he said unfolded the night Clark was shot.
Freeman said Clark and his girlfriend had a physical fight near a party at an apartment in Minneapolis. During his news conference, Freeman said that Clark’s girlfriend called 911 after this fight and was found with a split lip and bruises on her face; in his report, Freeman said several people saw Clark’s girlfriend slam his head into a door during the fight.
According to Freeman’s report, after the paramedics arrived, they saw Clark acting oddly outside the building and his girlfriend told them he was the one who had hit her. The paramedics, who got into the back of the ambulance with Clark’s girlfriend and locked the doors, also said that Clark taunted one of them before knocking on the window and trying to get in.
Ringgenberg and Schwarze told investigators that after they arrived, Clark’s hands were in his pocket and he refused to take them out, Freeman’s report states. When Schwarze took out his handcuffs to restrain Clark, the 24-year-old resisted, and Ringgenberg brought Clark to the ground. The officer wound up on top of Clark, who was on his back on the ground, the report said.
At this point, Ringgenberg said Clark had gotten his hand onto his gun and urged Schwarze, his partner, to shoot Clark. When Schwarze told Clark to let go of the gun or he would shoot, both officers told investigators that Clark responded: “I’m ready to die.” Schwarze tried to fire his gun once but the slide was only partially back, so he pulled the trigger again, hitting Clark near his left eye.
Investigators checked Ringgenberg’s belt, holster and gun and found Clark’s DNA, which Freeman’s report called “strong evidence that Clark’s hand was on Ringgenberg’s gun.”
Freeman devoted a considerable portion of his report and news conference to what he called the “central” issue of whether Clark was handcuffed, a key question that had lingered in the case since the shooting.
A dozen civilians in the area told investigators that one or both of Clark’s hands were handcuffed when he was shot, Freeman said; two people said he was definitely not handcuffed, while several others were not sure. Freeman said 10 law enforcement agents and paramedics said that Clark was not handcuffed when he was shot.
Ultimately, Freeman cited video evidence as well as a lack of any injuries to Clark’s wrists in concluding in his report that Clark was not handcuffed.
Wesley Lowery contributed to this report.
This story has been updated.