Skip to Content

Support MinnPost

Community Voices features opinion pieces from a wide variety of authors and perspectives. (Submission Guidelines)

Decisions, decisions: Justice for some or justice for all?

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. famously declared, “True peace is not merely the absence of tension; it is the presence of justice.”

Police officers in Minnesota and across the nation routinely receive special treatment when they are accused of a crime. This includes shielding by departmental policies that promote militarized conflict rather than de-escalation, union-negotiated provisions delaying interrogations and limiting civilian oversight, and overly broad legal protection for unnecessarily deploying force. It also includes investigations conducted by colleagues and charging decisions made by friendly prosecutors (often under cover of the grand jury process), and a credulous societal acceptance of crafted officer statements. Officers consequently are rarely brought to trial, let alone convicted, even when eyewitnesses, video, and forensic evidence provide convincing evidence of criminal misconduct. This, while cities pay out millions of dollars in taxpayer money to settle a flood of civil lawsuits detailing brutality – $6.6 million over the last four years in Minneapolis alone.

Last November, police shot an unarmed African-American male, Jamar Clark, in the head on a North Minneapolis street. Numerous eyewitnesses have publicly stated that Clark was restrained on the ground, not resisting, when he was shot. Nekelia Sharp told MPR: “This young man was in handcuffs. He did not resist. There was not a struggle and no question was asked.” Teto Wilson stated, “They had the guy pinned down on the ground. This guy wasn't fighting. He wasn't kicking. He was perfectly still, laying on the ground.” As usual in these incidents, the police narrative is that Clark grabbed for an officer’s gun.

We know from painful experience how these cases typically resolve. For example, in 2006 Minneapolis police officers killed an unarmed Dominic Felder, claiming Felder grabbed an officer’s gun. An internal investigation rubber-stamped the shooting as justified and a grand jury declined to indict – but a 2011 civil lawsuit (which Minneapolis lost and paid $2.2 million) included evidence that some bullets struck Felder from behind. Additionally, there were no palm prints or fingerprints from Felder on the gun, on both points contradicting the police narrative. There was a time when we similarly would have had no real hope for criminal charges against the officers who shot Jamar Clark, but business as usual is over.

Sustained calls for accountability

Jason Sole
Jason Sole

Since November, there has been a sustained call to hold police accountable for the killing of Jamar Clark. From the peaceful and community-healing occupation of the Fourth Precinct, to the rush-hour, awareness-raising, shut down of I-94, to large marches on City Hall, to petitions and phone calls advocating direct prosecution (bypassing the broken grand jury process), people have made their voices heard. Organizations including Black Lives Matter Minneapolis, Neighborhoods Organizing for Change, the Black Liberation Project, the Minneapolis NAACP, the faith-based ISAIAH coalition, the Twin Cities Coalition for Justice 4 Jamar, labor groups including SEIU chapters, and individuals from all backgrounds demanded that police be treated equally under the law and held accountable for attacks on those they swore to serve and protect.

Rachel Wannarka
Rachel Wannarka

Now, Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman has decided to do the right thing and will not use a grand jury to evaluate charges against the officers involved. While this is an important step in the right direction (grand juries almost never indict officers who shoot people, regardless of circumstances), it does not ensure that there will be justice for Jamar. Based on already public evidence, the next necessary step is for the officers to be prosecuted so that the criminality of their actions can be tested in court, as for any citizen.

Ideally, the Jamar Clark case should be handed over to “a special prosecutor, someone with no day-to-day connections to local police, state's attorneys or even the community itself,” to quote Janell Ross (writing in the Washington Post last year on police prosecutions). Indeed, a key recommendation of the recent President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing is “policies that mandate the use of external and independent prosecutors in cases of police use of force resulting in death.” This is not a personal criticism of Mike Freeman. Rather, it is a call for establishing best practices for this and future cases.

While we understand that there is a strong relationship between Mike Freeman and police departments in Hennepin County, we trust that he is going to objectively view the evidence and make the right decision. If he were to somehow decide against charging the officers who killed Jamar Clark, the positive step of avoiding the grand jury process would be small consolation for yet another failure by the state to deliver justice. Clark’s sister Sharice Burns told Kare11, “Justice means to me for the officer who killed my brother to be incarcerated and prosecuted and convicted of a crime that he committed.”

A question of faith in the system

Without even a trial, many of the eyewitnesses, many of the protesters, many of the citizens who passionately advocated for justice for Jamar, will lose faith in the criminal justice system. Thus, Mike Freeman has two choices: 1) do the right thing and close the divide between government and communities of color or 2) do the wrong thing by disregarding the evidence and validate the public’s mistrust. Many members of the community have voiced their concern that justice for Jamar requires the direct prosecution of the officers involved in the shooting.

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. famously declared, “True peace is not merely the absence of tension; it is the presence of justice.” Nekima Levy-Pounds, president of the Minneapolis NAACP said, “In Minnesota, too many people are focused more on being inconvenienced by protest than what is in the interest of justice. It is important for those who are concerned about justice to continue to agitate, make their voices heard, and disrupt the status quo until change happens.”

The recent protests in the Twin Cities often include the chant “No justice, no peace: Prosecute the police.” This chant represents a rallying cry for those in authority to hold those accountable when officers abuse their badge. Beyond that, steps necessary to secure justice for Jamar are laid out in another protest chant: “Indict. Convict. Send those killer cops to jail.” Or else the whole system will indeed be, and remain, guilty as hell. 

Rachel Wannarka, Ph.D., is a member of the Minneapolis NAACP Criminal Justice Reform Task Force and St. Paul Federation of Teachers. She is a special education teacher, Boys Totem Town, St. Paul Public Schools. Jason Sole is the Criminal Justice Reform chair of the Minneapolis NAACP, and a criminal justice educator, Hamline University/Metropolitan State University. 

Want to add your voice?

If you're interested in joining the discussion, add your voice to the Comment section below — or consider writing a letter or a longer-form Community Voices commentary. (For more information about Community Voices, email Susan Albright at salbright@minnpost.com.)

Get MinnPost's top stories in your inbox

Related Tags:

Comments (37)

Conviction

Insisting on the idea that conviction=justice before a trial has even taken place is a step too far.

However, fighting for a trial where all the evidence can be made public, examined, and considered to decide whether a conviction is warranted is certainly a worthwhile goal.

Trial first please

I can support a trial and if the video and other evidence supports the statements of the witnesses there should be a conviction. If the police version is true and there was a struggle for the officer's gun then there will be an acquittal. It would be tough to be charged but, it makes sense to pay the officers for their time off if they are acquitted.

Already convicted by the authors

Sounds like we don't need a jury trial as you've already made up your mind that they are guilty.

Presumption upon Presumption

Advocacy is a fine tradition. Advocacy of law is, well, de rigueur, isn't it?

So many opinions, so many summary judgments, so many factions and too many careless words.

I choose to respect one entity in this social drama: Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman. Period...

I think we can thank our lucky stars

...that the authors are not in charge of our justice system.

Investigations, trials ?? What a waste of time !! The authors already know who is guilty and of what. Away with this nonsense of a so-called orderly process, it's all just a racist dance anyway.

Instead of what we've got now, let's just gather a group of citizens and see who howls the loudest - those for conviction or those for acquittal. Then let's sentence the obviously guilty parties the same way !!

The authors' claim to call for justice is belied by their numerous pre-drawn conclusions, capped by their assertion that if Mr. Freeman should decline to prosecute, it would be nothing more than "yet another failure".

Rather than submit to a kind of mob rule, I would prefer to stick with the system of Justice we have - and this from someone who finds this same system so seriously flawed that it REQUIRES transformation.

An unarmed black man is shot,

multiple eyewitnesses say he was lying on the ground, and several commenters here are apparently shocked at the bold assertion that this is deserving of a trial? With objectively strong evidence of criminal misconduct already available, it is disturbing that these commenters can't even endorse the idea of a police officer being required, like anyone else, to defend his deadly actions in court.

Citizens expressing personal opinions on the conduct of police is not mob rule, it is democracy. Police receiving de facto blanket immunity from criminal accountability is however antithetical to democracy. Maybe some are comfortable with the long record in Minnesota of questionable police shootings not even going to trial; the rest of us demand a change.

Witnesses

Eyewitness testimony is not always reliable. Think Ferguson where sworn testimony was later shown to be mistaken or fabricated. This could be unintended because of the trauma of being close to a tragic event or it could be an observer bias that they presume the police to be at fault.

Either way there is a reason for the rigorous process to investigate and ultimately the community needs to respect that work and not jump to conclusions. First it's only justice if there is no grand jury, then it's only justice if there are charges, then it's only justice if the protestors approve of the charges, then it's only justice if there is a conviction, then it's only justice if the sentence is long enough.....

Opinions

We here are all about expressing opinions and free speech, we do it daily. However I think most of us are against surrounding and blocking a functioning police precinct, creating unsafe traffic situations where someone may be harmed, throwing rocks/ bricks and damaging public/ private property, trespassing on private property.

It is to take a law breaking group seriously as they demand law and order.

a real judge and jury

The authors do not wish to change the justice system which is presumption of innocence and a trial result decided by jurors. What they complain of is valid: that there can be an appearance of conflict when a county attorney prosecutes police crimes (committed while on duty) when he (as in Mike's case) would have to be adversarial to those who are his witnesses on a day to day basis -- and thus someone independent should be assigned the task. This has nothing to do with one's view of the integrity of Freeman; lawyer ethics rules are very strict about avoiding minute appearance of conflict of interest -- except county attorneys seem to get a pass in ways other lawyers would not. The authors do not disparage Freeman, but only ask that he recognize this appearance of a conflict, so that a better practice may result which would involve prosecutors whose office has never had a case with the defendants as witnesses.

Secondly, the authors do not claim to be weighing all the evidence and seeking a conviction. They are seeking charges for which only a standard of probable cause is necessary. The authors cite particular witnesses that should give grounds to probable cause (assuming the statements were made as reported). Many cases get prosecuted on the basis of a single witness, because that's enough for the minimal standard of probable cause. If the witness is later shown to be unreliable, dismissal can follow, or a jury can decide. If a judge finds the witness so lacking in credibility that probable cause doesn't exist, the judge will get rid of the case.

The irony is that many comments complain that the authors are judge and jury. But in fact the authors only want a real judge and jury, and not Freeman unilaterally as judge and jury,

Read the article

From the article:

"'Indict. Convict. Send those killer cops to jail.' Or else the whole system will indeed be, and remain, guilty as hell."

and

"Clark’s sister Sharice Burns told Kare11, 'Justice means to me for the officer who killed my brother to be incarcerated and prosecuted and convicted of a crime that he committed.'"

Both of those statements are pretty clear that they consider anything short of an automatic conviction to be unjust. To heck with a legal examination of the evidence - just go straight to the conviction.

THAT is what the commenters here are reacting to.

"assuming the statements were made as reported"

That's one part of the problem here, but as you've pointed out, there is the matter of reliable sworn testimony as a foundation. It is not merely what someone said, or what was reported on TV or written in the newspaper - which seems to be the basis of some opinions expressed here - assumptions taken as fact.

Then there is the straw man characterization that anyone who criticizes the authors is against the prosecution of the police, which couldn't be further from the truth. None of the commenters here has expressed even slight resistance to such a prosecution, so far as I can tell. But there is a great deal of resistance to "crowdsourcing" a prosecution.

I'm waiting to see if a careful investigation has been done to determine the facts and is found to be a valid foundation for a prosecution. If so, then I'm prepared to not only accept it, but insist on a vigorous prosecution which seeks the appropriate penalties for the crime and in disregard of the defendants' role as police. Murder is murder whether you're wearing a badge or not - likewise the penalties.

An independent prosecutor is a wise idea, not only for this particular case, but also for all similar cases going forward.

An automatic conviction?

But it is acquittal that is automatic - when a cop in MN shoots someone. That's just the stats.

Scratch that, not even acquittal, there's almost never a criminal trial.

Why don't you and the rest just go ahead and get on record that you at least support a trial here based on available evidence. Laws do apply to police too, right?

Support a trial? - read the comments

I'm pretty sure that that's what the first commenters in this thread were saying.

I know that's what *I* was saying, and my comment was the first one in the thread.

Just so you know

I thought your first comment was helpful and was not referring to you earlier.

Cool, common ground

I hope other commenters (and Minnesotans in general) do agree with that.

Your mention of transparency is another good reason to be glad Freeman agreed to end the use of grand juries in police shootings, since they aren't. Hopefully other counties will follow.

Scary

No normal person will ever object to a fair trial. However, a fair trial shall take into account that police officers are not “regular” citizens because they are the ones who always under fire or under the threat of being under fire. They deal with the worst of the worst every day and thanks to them, we don’t have to. So if “being threatened” or “being under stress” is always a mitigating circumstance in all cases, it should be multiplied by 10 for police officers.

However, the scariest part of this article is that the authors, who seem to be in total agreement with convicting and sending these officers to jail chant, are educators. What good can they teach? That cops are bad and are enemies? Not a single time they have acknowledged police’ positive role.

More Ironic

More ironic is that one seems to be affiliated with a Teacher's Union. A group that constantly strives to protect questionable employees from termination. Kind of like a Police union does.

The word lynching kept coming to my mind while reading this.

"Community" Voices

My derived feelings of social whimsy coalesce around broader comments by others here.

These authors give us the "voices" of platform perpetuation, of social sophistry, of sub-cultural schism, of tiresome thought titration.

I saw Martin Luther King. I heard him speak across an old rugby pitch: clearly, humanely, personally. These authors do not speak with that honored voice.

These "voices" are whisperings of division, not declarations for justice.

These are truly not voices of "Community."

"Community healing"

I concur wholeheartedly with the commenters that point out the need to condider the actual evidence and due process before deciding whether there is justice.

The part that really struck me as off was calling the protests "community healing." There is nothing healing about having your neighborhood inundated with smoke from burning garbage. Those protests were shut down because the community - the people who actually live near the 4th precinct - wanted them shut down.

How is the woman victim doing?

This whole messed started because Mr. Clark beat up a woman, who needed EMT care, which he then interfered with, forcing police intervention, if my recall of news reports is accurate. Please correct any errors I made.

How is that woman doing? She is definitely a victim, but she's become invisible in news coverage.

That there are police misconduct problems across the nation does not really inform us about the rights or wrongs of officer actions in this case. The specific credible evidence of this case needs to be assembled and examined, then a prosecution decision made. Seems too many have reached the verdict stage with out the benefit of having reviewed that careful assemblage of credible evidence. That is not the better path. Let justice grind onward

Excellent Comment

Somehow these folks have forgotten her, and that Jamar's poor behavior is why the police were there in the first place. They apparently want us to believe that this nice polite well behaved young man was standing there minding his own business when these highly trained police handcuffed him, threw him to the ground and shot him in cold blood. Really...

The last time I heard this story was when it happened to this guy named Michael Brown. Oh yes, then we found out that he had just robbed a store and had the nerve to be walking down the middle of a road like he had done nothing wrong.

Now if Freeman agrees that charges are warranted, then let the court proceedings begin. If he decides they are not, hopefully these folks won't break too many laws or destroy too much property in their search for law and order.

Prudent

It may have been prudent for Freeman to wait for the long-anticipated video to be released as a great deal of skepticism about the entire situation seems to be tied into what the video may or may not show.

I still support a transparent legal examination of the evidence, but it does strike me as a bit puzzling that Freeman is going to issue his decision now rather than waiting for the (potentially) increased clarity that the video may provide. (Unless, of course, the video is being held out of public view so that it will remain "untainted" if needed for a court proceeding - I'm not an attorney or a legal expert, so I don't claim a deep understanding of how these things work.)

Wait?

Not much longer, it seems. Just to review:

The County Attorney reviews allegations, evidence and law to make a preliminary determination of criminality of actions.
He does not view such matters in terms of civil action.

Mike Freeman has basically two choices here: to charge or not to charge these officers with criminal offense(s). He may also determine--in absence of criminal findings--to leave this action to continuing non-judicial departmental review and resolution. If so, the current clamor may increase, even broaden to wider/deeper issues with regard to community policing. That would be the outlet for social/civil recourse (already in some stage of process).

The County Attorney represents prevailing law, not assumed social or political standards. Some would quibble with that statutory duty; but, that's the way our criminal review system works here.

We are soon to hear the conclusions of Mr. Freeman's review...criminal review. I believe he will charge where justified, and not where not.

Should a County attorney from outside the Twin Cities

If the police are charged, it is very likely that defense attorneys will ask for a change of venue, claiming the police cannot get a fair trial in Hennepin County because of all the publicity.

If that is likely, why not have a County attorney from outside the Twin Cities make the decision on whether to charge the police officers or not. Then let that attorney do the prosecution if the police are charged. Let a county attorney from Duluth, St. Cloud or Rochester make the decision.

Interesting

That's an interesting idea (and somewhat relevant to a comment I just submitted to this morning's Glean).

I wonder if there are any legal impediments to that approach?

Because...

This is the job of Mike Freeman, Hennepin County Attorney.

The suggestion of conflict at this stage is unfortunately presumptuous. Just allow the calm statutory process to prevail.

CONVICT!

I'm kidding. I have no idea whether anyone should be convicted. And I'm pretty certain that neither do the authors of this Community Voices piece. It's not justice if anyone is wrongly convicted. If I completely ignore eyewitnesses in the case, including the cops and the bystanders, we're left with a situation that I, as a reasonable person, would be extremely cautious about. Situations that include both domestic violence and a party (where it can be assumed that, at least, alcohol was consumed) are extremely dangerous to both the victims of the domestic violence and to police that intervene in the violence, and anyone else around for that matter (including the paramedics). Assuming that one or more of the cops are indicted, a jury will be asked whether they reasonably believed that there was a danger to themselves or to anyone else by Mr. Clark. As soon as Mr. Clark attempted to approach his victim, the answer would be yes. The next question will be whether the cops were justified in using deadly force--whether that is true will depend on the specific evidence, and not hearsay or witnesses whose testimony can't be verified.

In the end, there will be a whole lot of egg on the faces of those demanding justice for Mr. Clark (and any other cause they choose to take up) if it turns out that the shooting was justified.

AAAAND

Here we are. The decision is made and the evidence, including the videos, looks to support the decision. Sadly, but not unpredictably, there are already suggestions that Minneapolis will "burn" for it. Probably the right decision, but still a loss for everyone.

It's a very emotional subject

I'm not surprised that people are upset with the decision. As you said, that was predictable. It's not what they wanted to hear, and they are understandably upset. That's not about being "right" or "wrong" - that's human nature.

People don't want to let go of what they believe. It can be a hard thing to "let the data speak for itself". People in the sciences get used to this. When the data doesn't support the hypothesis, you need to let go of the hypothesis.

But it's still hard, and we'll hear talk of "flawed investigation" and "ignored evidence" and such for quite a while, I expect.

It kind of puts me in mind of the birthers, for example. They knew what they believed to be "true", and they were unwilling to accept any facts that contradicted it.

We'll see the same thing play out here. Hopefully it can do so without getting out of hand.

In the end though, I think this was a better path to the outcome than if it had gone through the secretive grand jury process.

I agree

The process should not be secretive. Unfortunately, some of the process HAS to be secretive, particularly the investigation, in order to preserve justice. Justice is not served if there can be no jury not already influenced by an overly open process, especially in the information age we now live in. Taking the grand jury out of the equation is a damned if you do, damned if you don't situation in this case, though. It was going to be a losing prospect as soon as Jamar Clark became the center of the conversation because then it became justice for one man, who may or may not have already found justice, rather than justice for everyone. I'm not saying that Mr. Clark necessarily deserved to be shot or die, but if the cops did what was justified in that situation, it's not justice if they are prosecuted.

There can be no justice until we agree on what justice means. It seems that there's a difference between what justice means in the eyes of the law and what justice means in the eyes of the public.

Public

"what justice means in the eyes of the public."

So if ~2,000 people are upset with the verdict and believe that justice was not served, and 2,000,000+ people think the Mpls Police Dept, the BCA and Hennepin County Attorney's office did a great job in a terrible situation, are the ~2,000 people really the "public"?

Of course they are

Of course they are. They are not the majority, but they are certainly a part of the entire body known as "the public".

Yes

They are the public, too. And, for what it's worth, I'm not convinced that the officers did a "great job." In fact, based on the video, and the police's own account, at least one, if not both, of those officers should probably be fired as being a terrible cop. You don't go tackling someone without being in control of the situation. That Mr. Clark ended up under the cop with the cop's BACK to Mr. Clark is absolutely ridiculous. The cops were not in control of the situation, and they are in part to blame for the situation getting out of hand. Were they still justified in using deadly force? Probably. But it was a terrible situation made worse by pathetic decision making.

Great job

I thought the Minneapolis police who came to the scene did a terrible job. Clark was unarmed when they arrived and 61 seconds later there was a bullet in his head. You won't convince me that had to happen.

That being said, based on the evidence, Freeman made the correct decision not to charge the officers.

Don't assume that not protesting and agreeing with the non-indictment means approval of the police handling of the incident.

Clarification

Please note that I was commenting on Rachel's justice statement, not on the wisdom of the officers.

"There can be no justice until we agree on what justice means. It seems that there's a difference between what justice means in the eyes of the law and what justice means in the eyes of the public."

I agree that most of us probably agree that Jamar and the officers both made a BAD situation worse, and all probably wish they had done things differently. However I also believe that most of us believe that the investigation was well run and justice prevailed.

Do you disagree?

Jamar

Jamar is no longer in a position to wish he had done things differently.

Agreed

We're on the same page here