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
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.
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.
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