Federal Officials Decline Prosecution in the Death of Jamar Clark
The Justice Department announced today that the independent federal investigation into the fatal shooting of Jamar Clark on Nov. 15, 2015, in North Minneapolis, Minnesota, found insufficient evidence to support federal criminal civil rights charges against Minneapolis Police Department (MPD) Officers Mark Ringgenberg and Dustin Schwarze. Prosecutors from the U.S. Attorney’s Office of the District of Minnesota and the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, along with officials from the FBI and the Justice Department’s Community Relations Service, met today with Clark’s family and their representatives to inform them of the findings of the investigation and the decision.
The department conducted a comprehensive independent investigation of the events surrounding Clark’s death and reviewed the materials and evidence provided by the Hennepin County, Minnesota, Attorney’s Office and the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA). Federal agents and prosecutors examined evidence from numerous sources, including surveillance videos from a Hennepin County Medical Center (HCMC) ambulance parked near the site of the shooting; statements from witnesses; evidence gathered by the MPD’s crime lab; MPD documents related to the shooting; personnel files and background material for both involved officers; MPD policies and training materials; squad car videos; 911 recordings; and DNA, blood stain and autopsy reports, including a report of an independent review of the Hennepin County autopsy conducted by the Office of the Armed Forces Medical Examiner at the Department of Defense. Some witness interviews were conducted jointly by the BCA and FBI in the interest of efficiency and completeness. Additionally, the department reviewed the officers’ phone records and interviewed witnesses that spoke with the officers after the incident.
In order to proceed with a prosecution under the applicable federal criminal civil rights law, section 242, prosecutors must establish beyond a reasonable doubt that a law enforcement officer acted willfully to deprive an individual of a constitutional right. Since Clark had not been arrested when he was shot, the right involved is his Fourth Amendment right to be free from an unreasonable seizure. This right includes the right to be free from unreasonable physical force by police.
To prove that a shooting violated the Fourth Amendment, the government must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the use of force was objectively unreasonable based on all of the surrounding circumstances. The law requires that the reasonableness of an officer’s use of force on an arrestee be judged from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene, rather than with added perspective of hindsight. The law set forth by the Supreme Court requires that allowances must be made for the fact that law enforcement officers are often forced to make split-second judgments in circumstances that are tense, uncertain and rapidly evolving.
Additionally, to prove that a shooting violated section 242, the government must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the officers acted willfully. 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. It is not enough to show that the officer made a mistake, acted negligently, acted by accident or mistake or even exercised bad judgment.
Although Clark’s death is undeniably tragic, the evidence is insufficient to meet these substantial evidentiary requirements. In light of this, and for the reasons explained below, this matter is not a prosecutable violation of the federal civil rights statutes.
Officers Ringgenberg and Schwarze each provided a detailed statement to state investigators offering their version of how and why this shooting happened. In order to pursue any prosecution in this case, the government would have to disprove these accounts and establish that the shooting constituted a willful violation of Clark’s Fourth Amendment rights. During a detailed and thorough investigation, FBI agents and federal prosecutors conducted numerous interviews of witnesses to the shooting. In determining whether it was possible to disprove the officers’ statements beyond a reasonable doubt, the agents and prosecutors took into account all of the witnesses’ statements. According to the officers, Clark was taken to the ground un-handcuffed, Officer Ringgenberg fell on top of Clark and landed with his back facing Clark. Officer Ringgenberg stated that while he was in this position, Clark grabbed his gun and tried to pull it out of his holster, and that he (Officer Ringgenberg) shouted this information to his partner, Officer Schwarze. The officers stated that Officer Schwarze ordered Clark to release the gun, but Officer Ringgenberg continued to shout that Clark had his gun and that Officer Schwarze should shoot Clark. Officer Schwarze stated that, fearing for his life based on what he heard from Officer Ringgenberg and based on Clark’s and Officer Ringgenberg’s body positioning, he shot Clark.
In order to fully assess whether this shooting constituted an unreasonable use of force, federal investigators closely examined, among other things, all of the evidence concerning whether Clark was handcuffed when he was shot. Federal investigators spent considerable time and resources investigating this specific question because the fact that a suspect was handcuffed would change the analysis of whether a particular use of force was reasonable, since a restrained person generally presents less risk of harm to an officer than an unrestrained person.
Based on this extensive investigation, the Justice Department concluded that the evidence suggests that Clark was not handcuffed during this incident. Although approximately half of the civilian eyewitnesses interviewed by the FBI reported having seen handcuffs on Clark (and other witnesses believed, based on Clark’s body positioning, that he was handcuffed) these witnesses’ accounts varied significantly in the details of when he was handcuffed, what position he was in when he was handcuffed and even whether one or both hands were handcuffed. These conflicting witness accounts seriously undermine the degree to which they could be used to either disprove the officers’ accounts or to affirmatively establish that Clark was handcuffed.
Additionally, the relevant physical evidence, while not conclusive, tends to support the officers’ account. Neither the Hennepin County Medical Examiner’s autopsy, nor the independent autopsy review conducted by the Office of the Armed Forces Medical Examiner, found evidence of injuries to Clark’s wrists that would be consistent with handcuffing. Further, the department conducted DNA analysis of a pair of handcuffs found in the grass next to Clark’s body. Laboratory swabs of the inner and outer edges of the handcuffs found in the grass, the part that would have touched Clark’s wrists, revealed insufficient DNA for analysis. While these results are not definitive they do not support the conclusion that Clark was handcuffed.
In addition, the department reviewed the surveillance video from the HCMC ambulance that captured part of the incident. When considered in conjunction with the accounts of on-scene paramedics, the footage suggests that Clark was not handcuffed when he was shot. Two paramedics reported exiting the ambulance and moved towards Clark who is lying on his back and not wearing handcuffs. During that same time, Officer Ringgenberg can be seen on the video standing behind the ambulance, pacing around, without kneeling on the ground to remove handcuffs from Clark. Additional video shows that when Clark was transported into an ambulance a short time later, he was not handcuffed. While this evidence that Clark was not handcuffed in the moments following the shooting is not conclusive regarding whether Clark was handcuffed moments before when the shooting occurred, such evidence suggests that he was not. In sum, taken together, the witness accounts and the physical evidence simply cannot establish beyond a reasonable doubt that Clark was handcuffed when he was shot.
Federal investigators also considered whether, even if Clark was not handcuffed, the other evidence in the case is sufficient to establish beyond a reasonable doubt that the shooting was objectively unreasonable, in violation of the Fourth Amendment. The government would be required to produce admissible evidence that would disprove the officers’ accounts, establish the facts and further establish that the officers’ actions were objectively unreasonable under the circumstances.
The evidence in this case is insufficient to meet this legal standard. Federal investigators obtained statements from 29 witnesses to the shooting. The witness accounts do not provide any consistent narrative that establishes the details of exactly what happened between the officers and Clark, including how Clark was positioned on the ground, where his hands were located, where the officers were positioned and what happened to Officer Ringgenberg’s gun while he was on top of Clark. Additionally, none of these witnesses were close enough to see exactly what happened between Officer Ringgenberg and Clark while they were entangled with each other on the ground. To the extent that video from the ambulance partially provides this vantage point, it shows Officer Ringgenberg, face-up, struggling to get up off of Clark, which tends to corroborate Officer Ringgenberg’s version of events. Moreover, during this investigation, DNA testing revealed the presence of Clark’s DNA on Officer Ringgenberg’s gun. While the exact means by which Clark’s DNA was transferred to the gun cannot be established, its presence makes it impossible to disprove Officer Ringgenberg’s claim that Clark grabbed the gun.
In light of this, the evidence gathered during this investigation is insufficient to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the shooting was objectively unreasonable, in violation of the Fourth Amendment.
Finally, in analyzing a potential charge under section 242, federal investigators also considered whether the evidence was sufficient to prove the statutory element of willfulness. To establish that the officers acted willfully, the government would be required both to disprove the reason the officers gave for the shooting and to affirmatively establish that the officers instead acted with the specific intent to violate Clark’s rights.
For many of the same reasons described above, the evidence is insufficient to prove willfulness.
In sum, after extensive investigation into this tragic event, the Justice Department concludes that the evidence is insufficient to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Officers Ringgenberg and Schwarze willfully violated Clark’s civil rights. Accordingly, the investigation into this incident has been closed without prosecution.
In this case, the U.S. Attorney’s Office of the District of Minnesota, the Civil Rights Division and the FBI each devoted significant time and resources to investigating the circumstances surrounding Clark’s death and to completing a thorough analysis of the evidence gathered. The Justice Department remains committed to investigating allegations of excessive force by law enforcement officers and will continue to devote the resources required to ensure that all serious allegations of civil rights violations are thoroughly examined. The department aggressively prosecutes criminal civil rights violations whenever there is sufficient evidence to do so.
In Minneapolis there are a number of ongoing efforts led by the Justice Department intended to bring community members together to address public safety and public trust concerns. Minneapolis is one of six pilot cities in the department’s National Initiative for Building Community Trust & Justice which is designed to increase trust and transform relationships between communities of color and police. Additionally, the department’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) is conducting an independent review of the city’s response to last fall’s occupation of the Fourth Precinct station to identify significant findings about critical decisions and practices in order to help develop recommendations that Minneapolis, the Minneapolis Police Department and cities and law-enforcement agencies nationwide can use to help build trust, improve relationships and protect civil rights in the communities they serve.