Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman expressed unwavering confidence Thursday that he made the right call in not prosecuting the two Minneapolis officers involved in the shooting death of Jamar Clark. But Freeman also questioned whether police could have avoided using deadly force during the altercation.
Pointing to the DNA evidence as a “truth serum,” Freeman said the case would not have been handled differently if a special prosecutor from outside Hennepin County reviewed the same evidence. A tense, dangerous and fast-moving situation justified the use of deadly force, he said.
Despite his satisfaction with his decision to clear the officers — he declined the more conventional step of taking the case before a grand jury — Freeman said he felt compelled to contemplate how the 24-year-old’s Nov. 15 altercation with officers Dustin Schwarze and Mark Ringgenberg could have ended differently.
It was the first question he asked himself after reviewing videos and the thousands of pages of evidence that he released to the public Wednesday.
“After I reviewed the evidence, I started to think of other questions the public would want answered,” he said.
In particular, he wondered where were the Tasers? Could those stun guns have been used on Clark instead of a firearm?
Roughly 60 percent of the Minneapolis patrol officers are equipped with one of the devices, according to police. Earlier this year the department cited cost ($1,500 per officer) as a factor in the limited number of devices available.
On Thursday, police spokesman Scott Seroka said that “generally, newer officers aren’t issued Tasers as we have a limited number of them.” Ringgenberg and Schwarze were each about 13 months into their jobs with the department at the time of their confrontation with Clark.
Seroka added that the department “is exploring the possibility of issuing all patrol officers Tasers.”
Freeman was surprised.
“I can’t believe all street cops don’t have Tasers,” he said.
‘They had no choice’
Freeman’s announcement Wednesday was cut short by activists who criticized the decision — mainly for Ringgenberg’s “takedown” move which began the struggle in which Clark was shot. The shooting occurred only 61 seconds after the officers encountered him.
Friends and family of Clark audibly gasped when the video showed Ringgenberg grabbing Clark around the neck from behind before bringing him to the ground.
“How is that resisting?” one woman asked of Clark’s behavior. He appeared to be standing with his hands in his pockets when he was accosted.
Freeman said the move, which Ringgenberg learned as a police officer in San Diego, was “not favored” by Minneapolis police.
Schwarze’s attorney, Fred Bruno, said the officer acted in accordance with his training, and as the law required. Both officers have cooperated with authorities and waived many procedural constitutional rights while providing information, reversing decades of precedent, he said.
Bob Sicoli, Ringgenberg’s attorney, said he was pleased with Freeman’s decision and appreciated his office’s thoroughness. Freeman made the only decision he could make based on the evidence, Sicoli said. Clark’s death has been difficult on the officers, Sicoli added.
They knew shortly after the shooting “what the truth was” and waited patiently for Freeman to confirm it, he said.
“Both officers are good police officers who were faced with a situation in which a gun was being taken,” he said. “They had no choice in what they had to do.”
Tasers and lethal force
A state legislator and onetime law enforcement officer has discounted the reliability of Tasers when officers face potentially deadly situations.
State Rep. Tony Cornish, R-Vernon Center, Minn., said Thursday that critics of officers using deadly force should not look to Tasers as a fix-all.
“You’re damned if you use them, and damned if you don’t,” said Cornish, an ex-police officer. Not only does their use sometimes end in suspects dying or being injured, “a lot of the time, they are ineffective,” he said.
Cornish added they should be used only to subdue an unruly person and not in self-defense, such as when a suspect has his or her hands concealed.
In July, a man causing a disturbance at an Arby’s in Plymouth was struck with a Taser and then fatally shot during an altercation with police after he grabbed for an officer’s gun.
Officer Amy Therkelsen first tried to subdue 31-year-old Derek R. Wolfsteller with a Taser, but he was not sufficiently affected.
According to the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA), Therkelsen then attempted to subdue Wolfsteller physically. A fight ensued, and he tried to remove her weapon from its holster, the BCA added. She gained control of her gun and shot him in the head.
The BCA’s investigation was forwarded to Freeman’s office, and a determination regarding the officer’s actions will be made in the next month, Freeman said. A detailed report on his decision will be made public, but he said it’s unclear if his office would release all the evidence in the same manner as it did in the Clark case.
Because of the controversy surrounding Clark’s death, Freeman held an hourlong news conference to explain why he decided not to charge Schwarze and Ringgenberg. On Thursday, Freeman broke down the subjective and objective pieces of evidence that guided his choice.
“What was going on in the officers’ minds at the time Clark was shot?” he said.
During the scuffle, when Ringgenberg felt Clark grabbing his gun and he let Schwarze know that he feared for his life, Schwarze held his gun to Clark’s head and pulled the trigger, but the gun jammed.
Even at that point, Clark “still had a chance to stop resisting the officers,” Freeman said.
“Any of my fellow prosecutors would have agreed with my decision,” he added.