How Did Jamar Clark Die?

Minneapolis police shot and killed the 24-year-old black man early on Sunday. Witnesses say he was handcuffed and lying on the ground, although officers say he was not.

Activists camp outside the Minneapolis Police Department's fourth precinct, protesting Jamar Clark's death. (Jim Mone / AP)

How did Jamar Clark end up with a bullet hole above his eye?

The 24-year-old black man was shot by a Minneapolis police officer early Sunday morning under unclear circumstances. His family says he was taken off life support Monday, and died that evening.

What’s agreed on is that Clark was shot by an officer after police and ambulances responded to a domestic-violence call. Police said Clark was a suspect in the domestic assault, and interfered with responders. From there, things get murky. A number of people watched the incident unfold—it was across the street from an Elks Lodge—and several of them say that Clark was handcuffed when he was shot in the head. Police insist he was not cuffed.

“The young man was just laying there; he was not resisting arrest,” a man named Teto Wilson who said he saw the incident was quoted as saying by the local NAACP chapter. “Two officers were surrounding the victim on the ground, an officer maneuvered his body around to shield Jamar’s body, and I heard the shot go off.”

The state’s Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, the state’s top investigative agency, has taken over the case, and Mayor Betsy Hodges also requested an investigation by the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division. NAACP leaders welcomed that request, saying they didn’t trust local law-enforcement to investigate itself.

Black Lives Matters protestors have been out in force in Minneapolis since Clark was shot. On Monday night, a group staged a demonstration on Interstate 94, bringing traffic to a halt. Police arrested 51 people before the highway reopened. Activists also rallied outside the police precinct close to where Clark was shot. They have demanded that police release video of the shooting. Authorities, meanwhile, initially wouldn’t even say if there was footage, either from dashboard cameras or from body cameras. (A September report by a city police-oversight commission recommended that body cameras be activated during all community contact.) Bystander footage from shortly after the shooting is available. On Tuesday, the BCA said it has obtained several videos but that “none … captured the event in its entirety.”

[Superintendent Drew] Evans said the videos came from the ambulance, a public housing building, cellphones of bystanders and a police mobile video station. There is no video from any police squad car or officer body cameras. The BCA is in the process of working with the nearby Elks Club lodge to examine its exterior video.

But Evans also said that no images will be released until after the investigation is complete—which could mean months.
Even if Clark was not handcuffed, there is a separate question of whether the use of deadly force was appropriate in the situation. Just as the death of Freddie Gray brought new scrutiny on a Baltimore Police Department with a long, troubled history with its citizens—and particularly citizens of color—the police in Minneapolis are about to come under new scrutiny.
“We’ve been saying for a long time that Minneapolis was one bullet away from Ferguson. Well, that bullet was fired last night,” Jason Sole, an associate professor of criminal justice at Metropolitan State University and a member of the local NAACP chapter, told the Star Tribune.
The newspaper calculated that between 2006 and 2012, the city paid out $14 million for alleged police misconduct. Despite that staggering sum, reviews very rarely found police had done anything wrong. Partly in response, Police Chief Janeé Harteau created a conduct-review office. (She also later convened a citizens’ advisory council.) In its first 439 cases, not a single one ended with an officer being disciplined. In 2014, 943 complaints were filed against the Minneapolis Police Department—or almost 1.2 complaints for each of the department’s 800 officers—though the number has been dropping.
One officer, Michael Griffin, who won a departmental medal of valor for responding to a 2012 shooting, has racked up 19 complaints since 2007. He cost the city more than $400,000 in two brutality cases. In May, Griffin was indicted on federal criminal charges including perjury and police brutality. The U.S. Attorney’s office said Griffin assaulted “at least four people while off-duty and after first identifying himself as a police officer.” He has pleaded not guilty.
Griffin is a comparative rarity on the force as a black officer. The department has said it needs to improve minority hiring to better reflect the city’s demographics. Several incidents involving the MPD have caused racial tension. In 2013, police shot and killed Terrence Franklin, a 22-year-old burglary suspect. Officer Lucas Peterson shot Franklin, whose death set off marches and protests. At the time Peterson had been subject to 13 excessive-force complaints, which had cost the city $700,000. A grand jury declined to indict any police in the Franklin case, and officers were commended.
Just as Commissioner Anthony Batts was hired in Baltimore to help clean up the department, Harteau has been seen as someone who might help reform the department. And because she rose through the ranks to lead MPD, she seems to have strong rank-and-file support. (Batts, it should be noted, was unceremoniously fired in July, following the Gray incident, riots, and a spike in violent crime.) Harteau is the city’s first female police chief, and its first lesbian chief. She is also part Native American. When she was appointed in 2012, Minnesota Monthly asked her about police-brutality issues. She replied:

There are two ways to change behavior: discipline and training. Give officers the skills and tools to do their job, and make sure we’re clear on what’s appropriate. I’ll be asking officers, in every encounter they have, to reflect on how they would want a family member to be treated—what language they’d use, what actions they’d take. That doesn’t mean force shouldn’t be used, but you need to ask, “Is it reasonable?”

Clark’s death comes as Harteau’s job is in the air. In September, Hodges announced she would reappoint Harteau to a second three-year term, but only after rumors that she was seeking a replacement, according to WCCO. The city council is expected to vote on that this month.
In March, the Justice Department announced an initiative to try to improve police-community relations. The program would “assess the police-community relationship in each of the six pilot sites, as well as develop a detailed site-specific plan that will enhance procedural justice, reduce bias and support reconciliation in communities where trust has been eroded.” One of the six pilot programs was in Minneapolis. It should now have its work cut out for it.