The Justice Department said Wednesday that authorities found “insufficient evidence” for federal criminal civil rights charges against the two Minneapolis police officers who fatally shot Jamar Clark, the 24-year-old whose death in November sparked protests in the city.
In March, the county prosecutor also said the two officers involved would not face criminal charges because they believed Clark was trying to grab one of their guns. Andrew M. Luger, the U.S. Attorney for Minnesota, echoed the prosecutor’s findings in pointing to the differing accounts given by witnesses.
Police have said that they encountered Clark, who they said was the suspect in an assault, after paramedics said he was interfering with attempts to treat that assault victim. The two officers involved in the shooting — Mark Ringgenberg and Dustin Schwarze — told investigators that they were attempting to restrain Clark when he resisted and wound up on the ground with Ringgenberg.
When they were on the ground, according to the police account, Ringgenberg said Clark had gotten his hand onto his gun and began urging Schwarze, his partner, to shoot. Both officers told investigators that Clark said “I’m ready to die” when they told him they would shoot. Schwarze fired a single shot, hitting Clark near his left eye.
Investigators said that people in the area differed on whether Clark was handcuffed when he was shot, described by local and federal officials alike as a pivotal question in their probes. Federal officials said they focused heavily on this, because the question of whether Clark was cuffed could change whether the officers were deemed to have used reasonable force.
The Justice Department said Wednesday that evidence suggested that Clark was not handcuffed during the encounter. Mike Freeman, the Hennepin County attorney, had said a dozen witnesses said one or both of Clark’s hands were cuffed, two others said he was not cuffed and several others were not sure. Law enforcement agents and paramedics all said he was not cuffed, Freeman said.
The federal probe found that while half of the civilian witnesses who spoke to the FBI said that Clark was handcuffed, their accounts “varied significantly,” which investigators determined undermined whether they could prove that he was cuffed. In addition, the federal probe said that neither an autopsy nor an independent autopsy review found that Clark’s wrists had injuries suggesting he was handcuffed.
Minneapolis officials said an internal police investigation into the shooting continued, but called for the city to move forward after the findings from the county and federal investigations.
“This has been a difficult time for all of Minneapolis,” Mayor Betsy Hodges said in a statement. “I understand this decision has struck at the heart of a painful tension in the community. What we can do now is move forward together to build a city that is safe and equitable for everyone.”
Janee Harteau, the police chief, said in a statement that she had “full faith in this independent investigation.” Harteau also said she hoped the public accepted its findings.
Clark’s family was informed of the decision on Wednesday in a meeting with federal prosecutors and FBI officials.
His relatives were in tears and did not speak to reporters as they left the building where Luger held a news conference announcing that there would be no charges, according to the Minneapolis Star Tribune.
Nekima Levy-Pounds, head of the Minneapolis NAACP, decried the announcement, telling reporters that “they don’t want to give us justice,” the Star Tribune reported. In a post on Facebook earlier in the day, she had criticized officials for excluding activists from the news conference.
Federal law sets a high threshold for civil rights charges against officers, because they require proving beyond a reasonable doubt that an officer intended to violate a person’s civil rights.
“This high legal standard – one of the highest standards of intent imposed by law – requires proof that the officer acted with the specific intent to do something the law forbids,” the Justice Department said in a statement Wednesday. “It is not enough to show that the officer made a mistake, acted negligently, acted by accident or mistake or even exercised bad judgment.”
Clark was one of 990 people shot and killed by on-duty police officers during 2015, according to a Washington Post database documenting police shootings, and one of 12 people fatally shot by officers in Minnesota last year. 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.
This story has been updated.