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Jamar Clark shooting, protests continue strained history between community, police

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North Minneapolis race riots, 1967
Police stand guard on Plymouth Avenue as firemen battle fires on July 21, 1967.
Robert Walsh | Associated Press file 1967

When Jamar Clark was fatally shot by Minneapolis police in November, the incident touched off nearly three weeks of protests — including a freeway shut-down, a weekslong vigil outside the 4th Precinct police station and multiple rallies at city hall.

It brought Minneapolis one step closer to the outrage in Chicago, North Charleston, Baltimore and St. Louis — and countless other cities across the country where the relationships between police and black communities have come under scrutiny. 

Black Lives Matter protesters
Demonstrators protesting the police shooting of Jamar Clark stand together to block I-94's westbound lanes Nov. 16. Many of the protesters, most of whom are affiliated with the Black Lives Matter movement, were arrested when they refused police orders to vacate the freeway.
Judy Griesedieck for MPR News

"We have been saying for a significant amount of time that Minneapolis is one bullet away from Ferguson," activist Jason Sole of the Minneapolis NAACP said the day after Clark was shot. "That bullet was fired last night."

Minneapolis didn't see the level of violent unrest that erupted in Ferguson, Mo., last year after police shot and killed 18-year-old Michael Brown in the St. Louis suburb. But decades of anger and tension in north Minneapolis, where Clark was killed, and other city neighborhoods has built a history of turbulent relations between the city's black community and police.

The distrust has been fueled by not only police shootings, but by what many in the community see as a lack of accountability for officer misconduct.

 

1967: The "long, hot summer" comes to Minneapolis

The summer of 1967 was a turbulent one for race relations in American cities. More than 150 intense and sometimes violent demonstrations broke out, from Newark to Detroit to Milwaukee.

A Minneapolis policeman looks down Plymouth Avenue
A Minneapolis police officer looks down Plymouth Avenue on July 21, 1967, as he attempts to keep spectators out of the areas of north Minneapolis that erupted in violence for the second night in a row. Two buildings were burned out by firebombs and minor looting was reported. The governor called out 600 National Guardsmen, who were expected to be stationed along the street by nightfall.
Robert Walsh | Associated Press file 1967

In Minneapolis, the unrest centered on the city's north side — and along Plymouth Avenue, the same street where Jamar Clark was shot nearly half a century later.

Mayor Arthur Naftalin and Gov. Harold LeVander called in 600 National Guard troops to quell the crisis. 

"It is not a comfortable feeling when you see a jeep driving up and down the street with at least three military personnel and a 30-caliber machine gun," longtime resident Ron Edwards recalled. 

The unrest was part of a larger wave of flareups across the country, as black Americans called attention to the inequities and injustices they navigated daily. 

A Minneapolis policeman crouches in the middle of
A Minneapolis police officer crouches in the middle of Plymouth Avenue as other officers order residents off the street and away from their windows. For the second night in a row, windows were smashed, buildings were fire-bombed and stores were looted in north Minneapolis.
Robert Walsh | Associated Press file 1967

"People were just sick and tired of it, because back in the '50s there were all kinds of problems," Edwards said. "Beatings were kind of the order of the day."

The frustrations of the 1967 protesters were echoed in the demonstrations that began in mid-November, just after Jamar Clark was shot. There was a sense, Edward said, that City Hall was unable or unwilling to hold officers accountable for misconduct.

"We were angry," Edwards said. "We felt disillusioned. But at the same time we had a sense of perseverance."

Minneapolis police on July 21, 1967
Minneapolis police with riot sticks and shotguns stand guard at café on Plymouth Avenue, one of numerous buildings on the street that were smashed during an outbreak of violence in July 1967.
Robert Walsh | Associated Press file 1967

 

1989: Botched drug raid kills elderly neighbors

By the late 1980s, Minneapolis had hit record levels of crime, murders and drug arrests.

The violence came at the height of a nationwide cocaine epidemic, which had gripped the city and continued into the next decade. 

In a botched drug raid on Jan. 25, 1989, police fired a flash grenade into a home they mistakenly thought was empty. The grenade started a fire in the house — where senior citizens Lloyd Smalley and Lillian Weiss died of smoke inhalation. 

The deaths sparked protests, and demonstrators marched to City Hall and the office of Mayor Don Fraser, demanding the officers be arrested.

Despite the marchers' appeals, the officers were neither arrested nor charged.

 

1990: Tycel Nelson's death and parallels of Jamar Clark

Just under two years after Smalley and Weiss were killed, Minneapolis' black community rose again to protest a death by police — the circumstances of which, like that of Jamar Clark, were disputed by police and community members.

It was a Friday night party turned violent in December 1990. Police arrived at the scene in north Minneapolis after two people had been shot. There were rumors of a gang dispute — a detail which itself became a point of controversy.

Minneapolis police officer Dan May
Minneapolis police officer Dan May
Star Tribune via Associated Press | File 1991

What's not disputed: Officer Dan May fired a fatal shot at 17-year-old Tycel Nelson. Police said Nelson had raised a handgun toward officers; partygoers said Nelson had no gun, and had been running from police when he was shot. Police said Nelson was shot in the chest; witnesses at the party said he had been shot in the back.

A week after Nelson's death, neighbors gathered at a raucous, two-hour community rally at North High School.  

An MPR News report on the event said the meeting "rocked with anger."

"Everybody's talking about, 'gang, gang, gang.' Let me tell you something ... the police are just as big of a gang as any other!" Rev. Jerry McAfee told the crowd, to cheers and applause.

A special investigator examined the shooting, but a grand jury cleared May of criminal charges. He was awarded the department's medal of valor in 2006, but returned it amid a flurry of community outrage. 

 

2002: Jordan neighborhood erupts after 11-year-old injured

Another familiar echo in this year's protests: Federal oversight of the Minneapolis Police Department. Some of the demonstrators who gathered after Jamar Clark's death in November have demanded the city's police be supervised by the federal government. 

The same calls echoed through the Jordan neighborhood of north Minneapolis after an officer's stray bullet hit and wounded an 11-year-old boy. The officer had reportedly fired at a charging pit bull as he entered a home during a drug raid.

More than a hundred people, most of them African-American, poured into the intersection of 26th and Knox Avenues. Rioters damaged a local TV news truck, burned an automobile and assaulted two newspaper reporters. 

A mediator from the U.S. Department of Justice's community relations arm was summoned to the city. Her work led to the formation of the Police Community Relations Council, a group comprised of community activists and police officials. It disbanded in 2008 after the city declined to renew the mediation agreement.

 

2004: Courtney Williams, 15, killed after brandishing pellet gun

Police-community relations in Minneapolis were strained once again in October 2004 when a police officer shot and killed a black teenager.

It was another situation of mistaken cues.

Police said 15-year-old Courtney Williams pointed a gun at an officer, who then shot at the teen.

It was a pellet gun that police found near Williams afterward.

Ella Davis Suggs, Courtney Williams' aunt
Ella Davis Suggs, Courtney Williams' aunt, told reporters the family believes the police conducted a thorough investigation. But she said there were more questions to be answered.
Brandt Williams | MPR News file 2005

Family members said Williams didn't have the pellet gun when he was shot — and they said many details from the night of the shooting that don't make sense.

Police urged the community to remain calm in the aftermath.

A Hennepin County grand jury declined to charge officer Scott Mars in Williams' death.

 

1990-present: Review boards and skepticism

After Tycel Nelson's death, the Minneapolis City Council created a Civilian Police Review Authority to investigate allegations of police misconduct.

Advocates for police accountability worried the group would be ineffective, because it lacked subpoena power to compel witnesses to testify. The city's police union worried that civilian complaints could wind up on an officer's record even if the officer wasn't eventually disciplined.

The Civilian Police Review Authority was shuttered in 2012 after, according to the Star Tribune, it "fell apart amid complaints from its members that their rulings on police misconduct cases were routinely ignored by the police chief." 

The city's Office of Police Conduct Review, which replaced that group, has met with much of the same criticism — that very few officers named in civilian complaints receive any discipline.

According to city records, out of nearly 1,200 complaints processed by the new body between October 2012 and September 2015, 13 have resulted in discipline. The most common allegation is use of inappropriate language or attitude.

But that doesn't mean officers' actions go uncorrected. Jenny Singleton, a commissioner with the Police Conduct Oversight Commission, said many minor offenses are forwarded to police supervisors for "coaching" that doesn't show up on an officer's record.

"So, while there might be corrective action being taken," Singleton said, "I think that because it's not called discipline, it can be unsatisfying to a lot of people." 

Now: Fostering relationships and aggressive policing

Efforts to foster better relationships between police and the community have been complicated by data showing disparate treatment of African-Americans by police. A 2002 analysis of traffic stops found that minority drivers in Minneapolis were more likely than whites to be pulled over and searched. And a recent analysis by the ACLU found that people arrested for low-level offenses in Minneapolis were nearly 9 times more likely to be black than white.

Police chief Janee Harteau has said she welcomes input on addressing such disparities. She wasn't available to comment for this story. But earlier this year she said a large part of why African-Americans are arrested at higher rates is because many live in high-crime neighborhoods.

Minneapolis police chief Janee Harteau
Minneapolis police chief Janee Harteau and Minneapolis bike cops gathered in the parking lot of South High School before riding to the city's north side in July. Harteau says bike patrols are a good way for officers to be visible and accessible to citizens.
Brandt Williams | MPR News

"Frankly, if my officers weren't in those areas, I'd be asking the question, 'Why aren't you where the crime is?' That would be my question," she said. "And so it's not surprising to me that you're going to have lower level offenses at a higher rate in an area where officers are to try and combat violent crime." 

Harteau and other police officials have said one of the best ways to repair relations with communities of color is to make their neighborhoods safe.  

But aggressive policing can come at a cost. 

Since 2003, the city has paid out $23.7 million in settlements for police conduct lawsuits, judgments and claims. One of the largest payouts was made to the family of Dominic Felder, an African-American man shot and killed by officers Lawrence Loonsfoot and Jason King in 2007. The jury award and attorney fees set back city taxpayers more than $2 million. The officers were both cleared by grand jury and internal affairs investigations.

MPR News reporter Riham Feshir contributed to this report.