Department of Justice faults police response in 2015 Minneapolis protests

Published 8:57 am Tuesday, March 21, 2017

MINNEAPOLIS  — A federal review released Monday found problems with Minneapolis’ coordination and communication during an 18-day standoff outside a police station following the fatal shooting of a black man in 2015, but praised officers for their professionalism and the peaceful end of the protest.

The Department of Justice’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services conducted the review at the city’s request after the shooting of 24-year-old Jamar Clark on Nov. 15, 2015. His death in a confrontation with two white officers sparked an occupation outside the station on the city’s north side and other protests that were largely peaceful, though one on Nov. 18 included skirmishes between officers and demonstrators.

Some witnesses told police that Clark was handcuffed at the time, but an investigation by the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension found the officers were unsuccessful in handcuffing Clark, and he was shot after one of the officers shouted that Clark had his hand on the officer’s gun. State and federal prosecutors declined to charge the two officers, and they were cleared in the department’s internal review.

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Clark’s death came at a time of heightened tensions nationwide following protests over the killings of black men by police officers in Ferguson, Missouri, and elsewhere. Yet no protesters were arrested at the station during the Minneapolis protest and the only serious injuries occurred when a group of alleged white supremacists fired at demonstrators, wounding five, the report said. The protests cost the city more than $1.15 million, mostly for police overtime.

Nevertheless, the Justice Department review found a lack of a coordinated response among city and police officials and said law enforcement didn’t have a plan for managing the civil disturbance as it became a long-term event.

“Strained relationships, lack of clearly defined roles and responsibilities, public disagreements and lack of consistent internal communication” hampered the response, it said. And it said the department “experienced multiple breakdowns in internal communications and messaging” during the occupation.

The report praised other aspects of the response, saying officers “demonstrated extraordinary resilience and professionalism” despite verbal abuse and threats to their physical safety from bottles, bricks, Molotov cocktails and other objects thrown over the fence around the station. Black officers, in particular, were targets of verbal abuse, it said.

“The commitment of the city, the police department and individual officers to a peaceful, measured response played a large role in keeping the occupation from escalating into violent riots,” the report said.

It also noted that elected officials decided to resolve the impasse peacefully through “negotiated management” — a strategy it said was consistent with best practices — without including the police leadership in the discussion. That and poor internal communications contributed to frustrations for officers at the station who were left with no clear orders and inconsistent direction.

Mayor Betsy Hodges and Police Chief Janee Harteau said at a news conference that the need for better communications was their main takeaway from the review. Hodges said efforts fell short, and she apologized.

“Regardless of whether it’s because I lacked the bandwidth or I was constrained by legal reasons or I simply lacked the skill, I did not communicate in a way that would have helped the situation get better. Sorry. I am sorry,” she said.

Harteau agreed the big lesson learned is “communication, communication, communication” across all levels in the department and with the community.

“Clearly we need more effective communication with officers at all ranks and all assignments,” she said. “… It wasn’t necessarily so much the what we were doing but the why we were doing it. And everybody likes to hear the why.”

Jason Sole, president of the Minneapolis NAACP, asked the mayor and police chief how Clark and his family were ever going to get justice, and he said police violence against black men continues.

“Jamar should still be alive. … Does that report show that we’re dying out here?” Sole said.

Lt. Bob Kroll, the head of the Police Officers Federation of Minneapolis, said he wasn’t surprised by the report’s conclusions.

While the report backed the decision to seek a negotiated end to the protest, the union leader said he still believes there would have been no occupation outside the police station and no 18-day shutdown of the street in front had officers been allowed to make arrests immediately.

“When you give in (to people) it sets the wrong tone,” Kroll said. “People shouldn’t be allowed to break the law in the front yard of the Police Department.”