By Libor Jany and Paul Walsh
Federal authorities said Wednesday that they would not pursue civil rights charges against two Minneapolis police officers in the shooting death of Jamar Clark, a decision met with both outrage and resignation by activists who for months have demanded prosecution.
U.S. Attorney Andrew Luger, leaning heavily on whether Clark was handcuffed by police before being shot and other factors, said there was insufficient evidence to bring a federal case.
"I want you to understand that this is one of the highest legal standards under criminal law," Luger told reporters at FBI offices in Brooklyn Center. "It is not enough to show the officers made a mistake, that they acted negligently, by accident or even that they exercised bad judgment to prove a crime. We would have had to show that they specifically intended to commit a crime."
Critics responded almost immediately to the decision with anger, insisting the case was the latest example of the callousness of the criminal justice system toward blacks. Both officers are white, while Clark was black.
Minneapolis NAACP President Nekima Levy-Pounds shook with emotion as she called for a "paradigm shift."
"We are in a land of disparities and a land in which we are treated like second-class citizens," she said. "No matter how hard we try, no matter how hard we pound the pavement, no matter how much we lift our voices, they don't want to give us justice."
Clark's family members, who met with Luger before the announcement, were in tears Wednesday as they left the FBI building. They declined to comment.
In statements, Police Chief Janeé Harteau and Mayor Betsy Hodges endorsed both the state and federal findings.
"We have had two thorough investigations into this matter that arrived at the same conclusion. I am satisfied with the thoroughness of these investigations, am confident in their results, and I hope the public will accept their conclusions," Harteau said.
Police union President Lt. Bob Kroll lauded the decision but blasted city officials for creating "a dangerous and unproductive atmosphere," according to news reports. Kroll called Black Lives Matter, the organization that led protests in the wake of the shooting, a "terrorist organization."
Kroll's comments led to a sharp retort from Harteau, who wrote on Twitter that he does not speak for the department and that "Many are frustrated and find his comments divisive."
The shooting of Clark, 24, outside a north Minneapolis apartment complex in the early morning of Nov. 15 turned the city last fall into the latest flash point in a continuing national debate over police treatment of people of color and the use of excessive force. The weeks of protests that followed, including the 18-day occupation outside a police station several blocks from where Clark was shot, garnered international headlines and threatened to set back relations between police and communities of color where distrust of law enforcement runs deep.
Luger said that had the case gone to trial, the officers' defense attorneys would have easily picked apart conflicting witness statements and other evidence. But legal hurdles remain for the officers, who were cleared earlier this year of criminal wrongdoing in the shooting. Their actions on that night are still being scrutinized by the Internal Affairs unit to determine whether they violated any departmental policies.
Al Goins, a Minneapolis lawyer who represents several of Clark's siblings, said that Clark's relatives are planning to sue the officers. Before that happens, he said, a trustee must be appointed to handle his estate -- a process that could take three to four months.
Critics have for months argued that officer Mark Ringgenberg needlessly escalated what had been a routine encounter by violently taking Clark to the ground, saying that it underscores the need for better training for officers on how to de-escalate potentially violent encounters without resorting to force.
In their review, officials from Luger's office, the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department and the FBI scoured heaps of physical evidence, reviewed the officers' phone records and re-interviewed 29 witnesses.
Officer Dustin Schwarze's attorney Fred Bruno said Wednesday's decision didn't surprise him, but does provide relief to the involved officers.
"Although it seems like a lifetime since the event occurred, by traditional standards this has been a focused and accelerated investigation," Bruno said.
Community leader Ron Edwards said that he was troubled by federal investigators' decision not to re-interview every witness from that night, pointing in particular to one man who Edwards says was standing across the street from where the shooting occurred and saw the incident unfold.
On Wednesday, Luger said that Clark's death raised "serious questions" about police use of force and that his office and the FBI were spearheading a statewide pilot program aimed at searching for alternatives to deadly force in such encounters.
"We intend to use this tragic event to drive a conversation that must take place," he said. "A conversation where we talk about how police in our community react."
Staff writers Randy Furst and David Chanen contributed to this report.
(c)2016 the Star Tribune (Minneapolis)