I was both disappointed and stunned by County Attorney Mike Freeman's presentation last week justifying his decision not to charge the two Minneapolis police of...ficers involved in the killing of Jamar Clark.
The first thing that shook me, as he shared the information he and others had gathered, was that he did not have any definitive, clear evidence that would help us all share a common understanding of what actually happened that evening.
Unlike some recent cases of police involved killings, like the shooting of Laquan McDonald 16 times in Chicago, there was no video or audio to give us all a clear narrative of what happened. No, this was more like the shooting of Terrance Franklin, where the story of what happened relies on a few law enforcement officer's accounts and limited forensic evidence.
As I listened to the attorney and watched him carefully build his case to defend the position that the officers should not be charged, I wondered how much all of our opinions might be different if we had also had the opportunity to hear from an attorney willing and able to show us the best case for why charges, and what charges, might be possible. Unlike a court proceeding, when there would be legal teams on two separate sides of a crime working to build different cases from different perspectives, here we only got one side. There were no competing arguments, no cross examination of witnesses and no clear lines between defense and prosecution.
What we got was someone making the best case they could for why the police were innocent. We were left on our own to wonder about the other side. We were left to wonder how the statements from non-police-officer witnesses might have stacked up to the little amount of physical evidence or limited video tape that was available. We had no experienced, trained, legal mind to help build the case for any alternative.
Maybe we will learn more if there is a federal or civil trial and more sides can be presented. I have already learned a great deal as more people are sharing their reactions, and more information is coming to light. I am grateful to all who are willing and able to engage in this difficult community discourse.
Without doubt, the presentation by our County Attorney was polished, professional and self assured. Clearly he appeared to be trying do his best within the system he is a part of. And this demonstrated to me why we need serious and deep criminal justice reform, especially in regards to cases of police killings. It also shed light on why and how the grand jury system has failed us. If this is how prosecutors typically present cases of police involved killings to grand juries, it is not so surprising that grand juries seem to never recommend charging officers. It made me remember, that usually police and prosecutors are part of the same "team." They serve in our government and work together to arrest, charge and convict those who are not police and not prosecutors. Prosecutors need skilled, honest police to do their jobs and the police need competent and cooperative prosecutors in order to be effective.
I was disturbed that the attorney relied on and referenced the officers' testimony at length, and did not similarly use, refer to or quote any of the eyewitness testimony with which the officers' testimony disagrees. I wondered, would we do that with any other people accused of murder?
I was troubled that the narrative the attorney shared about what happened between Jamar Clark and Rayann Hayes was not supported by anyone else. In her own official statement shared online, Rayann Hayes stated clearly that she was not Jamar's girlfriend, and she was not assaulted by him. Those words were shared and broadcast on a local news station as well as with investigators and were in the records available to the County Attorney. Why, then, was this untrue narrative repeated over and over and over again? Was he trying to send the message that Jamar Clark somehow brought his death on himself, or deserved to be killed?
I was shocked to learn that Jamar was killed within 61 seconds of the two officers arriving on the scene and that the video showed a calm Jamar Clark with his back to police, and a police officer escalating the situation to physical violence. From the video it seemed clear that Jamar Clark was not violent and was not a threat. Still, he was apparently perceived as a threat. I wonder if the exact same actions by a 60 year old white man would have been perceived that same way or had the same result.
Even if one believes the narrative that the attorney laid out, there is no good explanation for how our officers so quickly escalated the situation that night into one in which people's lives were in danger and one person's life was taken.
Maybe the County Attorney is correct when he says that in our legal system the bar is so high he was unable to press charges and still be doing his job. Maybe he is right that in our system the officers were doing their jobs and that the system says they were justified in doing what they did. If so, maybe it is the system that is the problem.
What happened to Jamar Clark is exactly what so many of us work to prevent. In this case we failed. We failed Jamar. We failed his friends and family. We failed ourselves.
We must demand better from our police and from our criminal justice system. And from ourselves. We must do better. I must do better.
To that end, I offer the following eight ideas, drawn from a variety of sources including Campaign Zero (http://www.joincampaignzero.org), that should be (and some cases are already being) implemented in hopes of preventing this kind of thing from ever happening again:
1. Require more thorough and ongoing officer training on implicit bias, crisis intervention and de-escalation.
2. Eliminate standard practices like the “ask, tell, make” model that encourages the rapid escalation of situations.
3. Require current and prospective police officers to undergo mandatory implicit racial bias testing, including testing for bias in shoot/don't shoot decision-making, and develop a clear policy for considering an officer's level of racial bias in the hiring process, performance evaluations and decisions about whether an officer should be deployed to work in and with certain communities.
4. Establish and fund Mental Health Response Teams to respond to crisis situations. These should include a mental health professionals and/or crisis counselors as well as specially trained police officers.
5. Remove barriers to effective investigations and provisions that allow officers to wait 48 hours or more before being questioned after an incident, and time for officers to talk and meet privately after an incident before being questioned.
6. Fully implement the police body camera program so that it is standard police practice in Minneapolis, and establish sound policies governing their use. The policy should include provisions to record interactions with all subjects who have not requested to be kept anonymous; notify subjects that, in certain instances, they have the option to remain anonymous and stop recording if they choose this option; allow civilians to review footage of themselves or their relatives and request this be released to the public and stored for at least two years; and, prevent officers from reviewing footage of an incident before completing initial reports, statements or interviews about the incident.
7. Require independent investigations of all cases where police kill or seriously injure civilians and in-custody deaths.
8. Establish a permanent Special Prosecutor's Office at the state or federal level for cases of police violence. The Special Prosecutor's Office should be required and authorized to prosecute all cases where police kill or seriously injure a civilian, in-custody deaths and cases where a civilian alleges criminal misconduct against a police officer.
It looks like I may never really know for sure what exactly happened that night during those 61 seconds that ended so horribly and so tragically. But I do know that it was wrong. I do know that it could have been and should have been avoided and prevented. And I do know that we must do more to make sure it never happens again.
Wednesday evening (still stunned and saddened from the morning's presentation), I felt less alone and I little more hopeful when I joined the group at Eliot park and the march to government center.
There, that familiar chant, that I often find disturbing, had a deeper meaning for me. Maybe you know the first line, but it is the second is echoing in my ears
".... the whole ..... system is guilty as ......!"
Let us seize this moment in history and change it.