In the wake of the fatal shooting of Jamar Clark by two Minneapolis cops last November, Black Lives Matter activists demanded that a grand jury not be used to prosecute the involved officers. Wednesday, Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman announced he’s satisfying that demand and then some.
Freeman said he will not convene a grand jury to explore bringing charges against the two officers involved in Clark’s death, Mark Ringgenberg, 30, and Dustin Schwarze, 28, both of whom were put on administrative leave after the shooting but have since returned to desk jobs. Instead, Freeman himself will determine whether criminal charges are warranted.
“I concluded that the accountability and transparency limitations of a grand jury are too high a hurdle to overcome,” Freeman said in a statement. “So, at this point in time, and in a democracy where we continually strive to make our systems fairer, more just and more accountable, we in Hennepin County will not use the grand jury in the Jamar Clark case.”
Freeman also announced that he’ll no longer employ grand juries in police shooting cases in Hennepin County, breaking a precedent that stretches back at least 40 years.
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While the old adage is that a prosecutor can persuade a grand jury to indict a ham sandwich, that isn't the case when it comes to deadly force cases involving police officers. In Minnesota, there is no recorded instance of a cop being indicted for murder during the course of police duty. Nationally, a Bowling Green University study found that just 41 officers were charged in all with murder or manslaughter in a seven-year period ending in 2011, while 2,600 justifiable homicides were reported to the Federal Bureau of Investigation during that same time frame. The officers involved in the deaths Eric Garner in Staten Island and Michael Brown in Ferguson weren't indicted, but the officers involved in the death of Freddie Gray were.
Given that history, the demand that the investigations of the officers involved in Clark's death proceed without a grand jury became a rally cry for activists. In the days that followed Clark's November 15 shooting, protesters staged an 18-day encampment outside the police department’s Fourth Precinct in north Minneapolis, near the site of the shooting.
CREDIT: Javille Burns via AP
One of the groups who helped organize the encampment, Neighborhoods Organizing for Change (NOC), applauded Freeman's decision.
"Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman listened to the community and took a bold step toward transparency and accountability by deciding not to use a grand jury in the Jamar Clark case, or in future police shooting cases in Hennepin County," NOC said in a statement. "Today's announcement is an acknowledgment that the grand jury is an antiquated legal tool. This decision is a clear reflection of pressure from the community and listening to our concerns about transparency and accountability... Freeman's decision today is a game-changing step toward a new system of police accountability, in Hennepin County and across the country."
The decision was also applauded by the ACLU of Minnesota:
Good news from County Attorney Freeman no grand jury for the Jamar Clark shooting + no grand juries for any police shootings. #Justice4Jamar
— ACLU of Minnesota (@ACLUMN) March 16, 2016
Freeman said he hasn't yet reached a determination as to whether Ringgenberg and Schwarze will face criminal charges. Clark was shot after police were called to investigate a confrontation between Clark and his girlfriend. In the days following the incident, police claimed Clark grabbed for an officer's gun, while some witnesses said Clark was already in handcuffs when he was shot.
"We hope to reach this decision [about whether or not to charge the cops] in the near future and I will share it with you soon thereafter," Freeman said.