Another police shooting of an unarmed black man — this time in Minnesota — will result in no criminal charges.
Last November, an altercation between two white police officers and Jamar Clark, a 24-year-old black man, ended up with Clark shot and dead. Although some video footage of the shooting is available, what exactly led up to the shooting — and, importantly, what Clark and the officers did and said — remains unclear.
Nonetheless, Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman said on Wednesday, March 30, that the two officers involved, Mark Ringgenberg and Dustin Schwarze, won't face criminal charges. Freeman released volumes of evidence, including video, to argue that the two officers reasonably believed their lives were in danger when Ringgenberg told Schwarze to open fire.
The shooting — like others before it in Chicago, Cleveland, and Ferguson, Missouri — has drawn nationwide scrutiny and local protests. Elevated by the Black Lives Matter movement, which protests racial disparities in police use of force, critics say this is just the latest example of systemic bias in the criminal justice system — a bias that allows law enforcement officers to disproportionately use deadly force on black people.
What we know about Ringgenberg and Schwarze's altercation with Clark
The investigation indicated that Clark had attacked his ex-girlfriend, interfered with paramedics who tried to help her, and refused to remove his hands from his pockets upon officers' request, CNN and USA Today reported.
From there, Ringgenberg took out his gun, only aiming it at the ground. The officers again asked Clark to take his hands out of his pockets. Clark didn't comply.
Then Ringgenberg holstered his gun, and he and Schwarze took Clark to the ground to try to handcuff the 24-year-old. Ringgenberg reportedly landed on top of Clark. Ringgenberg said he felt his gun move from his right hip as Clark reached for it, and the officer claims that he felt Clark's "whole" hand on the weapon when he reached back to secure the weapon. The officer believed Clark had control of his firearm.
At that point, Schwarze dropped the handcuffs and took out his own gun, aiming it at Clark's head. "Let go or I'm gonna shoot you," he said. Clark then allegedly responded, "I'm ready to die." Upon Ringgenberg's urging, Schwarze shot and killed Clark.
The prosecutor argued the shooting was justified because Schwarze and Ringgenberg reasonably believed that Clark posed a threat by grabbing the officer's gun.
Grainy video from an ambulance camera shows Ringgenberg and Schwarze taking Clark to the ground. But before and after that, the confrontation remains mostly out of sight of the camera.
Witnesses provided conflicting accounts to investigators, according to CNN. Two said Clark was handcuffed during the struggle. Six said they didn't know. And 12 said he was handcuffed, although they didn't agree on whether his hands were behind him, his hands were in front of him, or if only his left hand was handcuffed.
But Clark's family and the local branch of the NAACP argued that the investigation was biased in favor of the police. They said Clark could have never told the officers that he was ready to die. And they claim the officers were the aggressors, since the video shows the cops taking Clark to the ground when he's not putting up a fight.
A federal investigation and internal police review into the shooting are still ongoing.
Still, the case has turned into another national controversy as Black Lives Matter and racial justice activists continue drawing attention to racial disparities in police killings.
Black people are much more likely to be killed by police than their white peers
An analysis of the available FBI data by Vox's Dara Lind shows that US police kill black people at disproportionate rates: They accounted for 31 percent of police shooting victims in 2012, even though they made up just 13 percent of the US population. Although the data is incomplete, since it's based on voluntary reports from police agencies around the country, it highlights the vast disparities in how police use force.
Black teens were 21 times as likely as white teens to be shot and killed by police between 2010 and 2012, according to a ProPublica analysis of the FBI data. ProPublica's Ryan Gabrielson, Ryann Grochowski Jones, and Eric Sagara reported: "One way of appreciating that stark disparity, ProPublica's analysis shows, is to calculate how many more whites over those three years would have had to have been killed for them to have been at equal risk. The number is jarring — 185, more than one per week."
The disparities appear to be even starker for unarmed suspects, according to an analysis of 2015 police killings by the Guardian. Racial minorities made up about 37.4 percent of the general population and 46.6 percent of armed and unarmed victims, but they made up 62.7 percent of unarmed people killed by police.
There have been several high-profile police killings since 2014 involving black suspects. In Baltimore, six police officers were indicted for the death of Freddie Gray while in police custody. In North Charleston, South Carolina, Michael Slager was charged with murder and fired from the police department after shooting Walter Scott, who was fleeing and unarmed at the time. In Ferguson, Darren Wilson killed unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown. In New York City, NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo killed Eric Garner by putting the unarmed 43-year-old black man in a chokehold.
One possible explanation for the racial disparities: subconscious biases. Studies show that officers are quicker to shoot black suspects in video game simulations. Josh Correll, a University of Colorado Boulder psychology professor who conducted the research, said it's possible the bias could lead to even more skewed outcomes in the field. "In the very situation in which [officers] most need their training," he said, "we have some reason to believe that their training will be most likely to fail them."
Part of the solution to this type of bias is better training that helps cops acknowledge and deal with their potential subconscious prejudices. But critics also argue that more accountability could help deter future brutality or excessive use of force, since it would make it clear that there are consequences to the misuse and abuse of police powers. Yet right now, lax legal standards make it difficult to legally punish individual police officers for use of force, even when it might be excessive.
Police only have to reasonably perceive a threat to justify shooting
Legally, what most matters in these shootings is whether police officers reasonably believed that their lives were in danger, not whether the shooting victim actually posed a threat.
Constitutionally, "police officers are allowed to shoot under two circumstances," David Klinger, a University of Missouri St. Louis professor who studies use of force, told Lind. The first circumstance is "to protect their life or the life of another innocent party" — what departments call the "defense-of-life" standard. The second circumstance is to prevent a suspect from escaping, but only if the officer has probable cause to think the suspect poses a dangerous threat to others.
The logic behind the second circumstance, Klinger said, comes from a Supreme Court decision called Tennessee v. Garner. That case involved a pair of police officers who shot a 15-year-old boy as he fled from a burglary. (He'd stolen $10 and a purse from a house.) The court ruled that cops couldn't shoot every felon who tried to escape. But, as Klinger said, "they basically say that the job of a cop is to protect people from violence, and if you've got a violent person who's fleeing, you can shoot them to stop their flight."
The key to both of the legal standards — defense of life and fleeing a violent felony — is that it doesn't matter whether there is an actual threat when force is used. Instead, what matters is the officer's "objectively reasonable" belief that there is a threat.
That standard comes from the other Supreme Court case that guides use-of-force decisions: Graham v. Connor. This was a civil lawsuit brought by a man who'd survived his encounter with police officers, but who'd been treated roughly, had his face shoved into the hood of a car, and broken his foot — all while he was suffering a diabetic attack. The court didn't rule on whether the officers' treatment of him had been justified, but it did say that the officers couldn't justify their conduct just based on whether their intentions were good. They had to demonstrate that their actions were "objectively reasonable," given the circumstances and compared to what other police officers might do.
What's "objectively reasonable" changes as the circumstances change. "One can't just say, 'Because I could use deadly force 10 seconds ago, that means I can use deadly force again now,'" Walter Katz, a California attorney who specializes in oversight of law enforcement agencies, said.
In general, officers are given lot of legal latitude to use force without fear of punishment. The intention behind these legal standards is to give police officers leeway to make split-second decisions to protect themselves and bystanders. And although critics argue that these legal standards give law enforcement a license to kill innocent or unarmed people, police officers say they are essential to their safety.
For some critics, the question isn't what's legally justified but rather what's preventable."We have to get beyond what is legal and start focusing on what is preventable. Most are preventable," Ronald Davis, a former police chief who heads the Justice Department's Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, told the Washington Post. Police "need to stop chasing down suspects, hopping fences, and landing on top of someone with a gun," he added. "When they do that, they have no choice but to shoot."
Police rarely get prosecuted for shootings
Police are very rarely prosecuted for shootings — and not just because the law allows them wide latitude to use force on the job. Sometimes the investigations fall onto the same police department the officer is from, which creates major conflicts of interest. Other times the only available evidence comes from eyewitnesses, who may not be as trustworthy in the public eye as a police officer.
"There is a tendency to believe an officer over a civilian, in terms of credibility," David Rudovsky, a civil rights lawyer who co-wrote Prosecuting Misconduct: Law and Litigation, told Vox's Amanda Taub. "And when an officer is on trial, reasonable doubt has a lot of bite. A prosecutor needs a very strong case before a jury will say that somebody who we generally trust to protect us has so seriously crossed the line as to be subject to a conviction."
If police are charged, they're very rarely convicted. The National Police Misconduct Reporting Project analyzed 3,238 criminal cases against police officers from April 2009 through December 2010. They found that only 33 percent were convicted, and only 36 percent of officers who were convicted ended up serving prison sentences. Both of those are about half the rate at which members of the public are convicted or incarcerated.
The statistics suggest that it would have been a truly rare situation if the officers were tried and convicted for Clark's death. For critics of police, that seems like an injustice.