From Ferguson to Minneapolis: Crisis of confidence plagues police in wake of deadly officer-involved shootings

Jason Sickles
Pastor Tanden Brekke, right, pleads with officers to deescalate the situation as demonstrators besiege the Minneapolis Police Department Fourth Precinct building on Wednesday. Protesters have been camping outside the building since the fatal police shooting of Jamar Clark. (John Autey/Pioneer Press via AP)

One of the most critical issues facing law enforcement is playing out now in Minneapolis — what, when and how much information to make public in the aftermath of an officer-involved shooting.

Authorities say 24-year-old Jamar Clark, a suspect in a domestic assault, was interfering with paramedics who were trying to treat his alleged victim early last Sunday when he scuffled with Minneapolis officers and was shot. Clark, who was unarmed, died one day later. Police have denied the accounts of some eyewitnesses who say that Clark was handcuffed before being shot once in the head.

This undated photo of Jamar Clark was released by his sister, Javille Burns. (Javille Burns via AP)

The hashtag #Justice4Jamar took off nearly immediately on social media. Later that afternoon, hundreds of demonstrators led by the local Black Lives Matter chapter were marching through the streets. Protesters demanded that police immediately name the officers involved, make public any video of the shooting and request a federal investigation.

“We have been saying for a significant amount of time that Minneapolis is one bullet away from Ferguson,” Jason Sole, chair of the Minneapolis NAACP's criminal justice committee, told a reporter.

“That bullet was fired last [Sunday]. We want justice immediately.”

A mere mention of “Ferguson” is enough to make any police chief flinch. The unrest outside St. Louis following the police killing of Michael Brown, an unarmed teenager, was a “defining moment for the entire policing profession,” according to a recent paper by the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF).

Minneapolis Chief Janee Harteau was among nearly 200 of the country’s top police executives who met in Chicago a month after Brown’s August 2014 death. On short notice, the PERF annual “critical issues” conference was extended to include a full day on Ferguson.

Nationally, police departments are inconsistent about what information they release to the public about officer-involved shootings. Many chiefs have traditionally guarded specifics in the interest of the investigation, possible litigation and officer safety.

But in the wake of Ferguson, department heads “told us they are finding that approach no longer viable, because the narrative is created within a few hours of a critical incident happening, and the narrative is written whether or not the police contribute any information to the story,” the PERF paper states. “Too much damage can be done if police miss their chance to explain what happened and correct wrong information that can spread in the immediate aftermath of an incident.”

Ferguson officials waited nearly a week to release Darren Wilson’s name after he shot Brown, an unarmed robbery suspect whom he had been fighting. Then Chief Thomas Jackson initially planned to disclose Wilson’s identity three days after the shooting, but changed his mind when he said threats had been made on social media against the officer and department. Wilson, who was eventually cleared by state and federal investigators, went into hiding with his family.

“The value of releasing the name is far outweighed by the risk of harm to the officer and his family,” Jackson told reporters. The decision was quickly criticized. For many nights, Ferguson was the scene of violent clashes between some protesters and police. Since Ferguson, high-profile incidents in New York, Baltimore and South Carolina have fueled a national debate about deadly encounters between police and young back men.

Minneapolis has experienced several tense moments this week, but far from the Ferguson unrest. Police arrested nearly 50 demonstrators who shut down a freeway during the Monday evening rush hour. All week activists have maintained a sometimes-testy occupation outside the Police Department’s Fourth Precinct headquarters, a few blocks from where Clark was shot.

At the request of Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges and Chief Harteau, the FBI and U.S. Justice Department are looking at the case. But despite the federal investigation, demonstrators have expressed skepticism and demanded more information, including the release of videos of the shooting.

It’s the kind of discord on the minds of police chiefs across the country.

“There has been a very robust discussion between the chiefs, that’s for sure,” Terrence Cunningham, president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, told Yahoo News.

Cunningham, the chief in Wellesley, Mass., said what’s not being communicated is that agencies sometimes don’t immediately reveal officer’s names and other details at the behest of outside investigators or because union contracts limit what can be released.

“If you can’t, then you need to tell them why,” he said. “In the meantime these high-profile cases, they become flash points, I personally believe, because of a lack of information that we provide.”

‘No comment’ doesn’t cut it, said Cunningham, adding that the IACP plans to develop a checklist for police departments.

SLIDESHOW – Protesters and police square off in Minneapolis >>>

“I think we all understand, particularly given the environment that we face today, that transparency should be No. 1,” Cunningham said. “The communities that we serve deserve that. Understanding that — and you have to tell people this — the first information we get may not be right because we have not had an opportunity to vet it yet. But we're going to give you as much information as we have."

Mayor Hodges and Chief Harteau have communicated regularly with demonstrators since Clark’s death but, Minneapolis police spokesperson John Elder told Yahoo News, “some people may not like the message.”

Jana Kooren with the ACLU of Minnesota writes that protests have continued because “communities of color have no trust in their police force.”

“Police have to stop looking at Black people as threats to be squashed, and instead start seeing every individual as a person with dignity, loved ones and constitutional rights,” writes Kooren, citing a recent ACLU investigation exposing a disproportionate number of arrests in Minneapolis. “It’s impossible to understand the protests and civil disobedience triggered by Jamar’s death without this context.”

For the first time in MPD history, the shooting investigation is not being handled internally. The department requested the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension and FBI step in.

 “We have total faith in our investigators to do an absolutely ethical, thorough, complete investigation, but this should take away the appearance of any impropriety,” Elder said. “Once it was decided that the BCA would handle this, then the case in its entirety goes to them. That includes releasing anything.”

The officers involved in the Minneapolis shooting were identified Wednesday as Mark Ringgenberg, 30, and Dustin Schwarze, 28. BCA spokesperson Jill Oliveira said it’s standard practice for Minnesota state police to release the names once the officers involved have been interviewed. Detectives questioned Ringgenberg and Schwarze, who have not been charged, Tuesday night, Oliveira said.

The BCA said it has several videos of the shooting, but none showing the entire event. Despite protesters’ demands, the agency said the videos wouldn’t be made public until their investigation is complete, which could take months. Investigators acknowledged to reporters that handcuffs were present at the scene, but they are still working to determine whether they were on Clark.

Jim Pasco, executive director of the national Fraternal Order of Police, said he fears investigations are rushed, due process lost and officer well-being jeopardized because of people on social media “fanning the flames of discord.”

“There’s no one size fits all,” Pasco said. “In general, any decision that’s made should be made with the best interest in terms of safety and due process of all parties to any incident.”

Police commanders, Pasco said, are not always in total control.

“Police chiefs are not free agents,” he said. “It’s not caving, it’s not politicized; it’s a matter of fact that you do what your boss tells you to do or you don’t work there anymore.”

In May, President Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing made recommendations on use of force investigations and data reporting, but did not address the release of information like officer names.

“These are some challenging times,” said Cunningham, the IACP president. “But coming out of challenging times, you can make some really significant changes. I think it’s good for the profession. We’re under increased scrutiny, which I’m fine with.”

Jason Sickles is a national reporter for Yahoo News. Follow him on Twitter (@jasonsickles).