(Jamar Clark/Javille Burns via AP)
MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — The troubled past that Jamar Clark struggled for years to escape now hangs over the investigation into his death at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer.
Family members and friends say the 24-year-old was on the right track in the months leading up to the shooting early Sunday. He cared deeply about his parents — biological and adoptive — and his 14 siblings, and had a job and hopes of going to college.
But police union representatives point to Clark’s criminal history as proof that he was a bad actor, and they contend he was reaching for an officer’s gun when he was shot. Beyond the domestic assault call alleging Clark had hurt his girlfriend that brought police to the north Minneapolis neighborhood, he spent three years in and out of prison for a robbery conviction. More recently, he was on probation for threatening to burn down an ex-girlfriend’s house after a bitter break-up and was awaiting trial for a July arrest for fleeing police in a high-speed chase.
Black Lives Matter protesters outside the police precinct insist Clark was handcuffed before he was shot, which police dispute. His death laid bare the tension between Minneapolis’ Black community and law enforcement and, the protesters say, exposed deeply embedded societal problems that made Clark’s history impossible to move past.
Protesters including pastor Danny Givens demanded answers over the shooting of Jamar Clark near a police precinct in Minneapolis, Tuesday, Nov. 17, 2015. State investigators looking into the fatal shooting of Clark by police during a scuffle have several partial videos of the incident but won’t release them at this time, despite demands from protesters, an official said Tuesday. (Richard Tsong-Taatarii/Star Tribune via AP)
“None of our children deserve to be shot and killed, and then talked about like they are animals,” said Bettie Smith, who joined protesters Monday to discuss her son’s death in a 2008 officer-involved shooting.
Amid federal and state investigations into Clark’s death, several family members declined to talk with The Associated Press. Wilma and James Clark, who adopted Jamar Clark when he was 4, acknowledged his legal trouble in an interview with MPR News but said he was fixing it.
“He was trying to do right. He was trying to turn his life around,” James Clark said.
Clark spent much of his 20’s in and out of prison, serving a three-year sentence for a first-degree robbery conviction in 2010. He had been convicted of a petty misdemeanor for possessing a small amount of marijuana in 2009.
In a letter on behalf of one of the officers involved in the shooting, an attorney and Minneapolis police union president Bob Kroll listed some of his past crimes, saying Clark was “not a peaceful, law-abiding citizen.”
But when Tim Hoag and his wife hired Clark earlier this year — first to help out with painting and cleanup at their rental homes, then at Hoag’s moving and trucking company — Hoag said they found an energetic yet polite young man, a hard and trustworthy worker with a bright personality and a “million-dollar smile.”
Hoag also saw that Clark couldn’t escape the trouble from his past: the familiar signs of a felon recently released from prison, struggling to get his footing. At times he couldn’t afford bus fare for work and struggled with stable housing. Hoag put him up at a motel for a few days to help out, and gave him as many hours of work at Copeland Trucking as he could, helping in the warehouse or on moves.
Clark was ashamed of his past, he said. Hoag was sure he could move past it, maybe to become a full-time truck driver for the company.
“Jamar was a troubled youth that was put into the correction system. The system failed miserably,” Hoag said. “He didn’t know what he wanted to do. He needed to earn money,”
Tiffany Truitt saw two sides of Clark in the few months last winter they dated. When things were going well, he was a nurturing, loving man who was drawn to her four children, giving them advice and helping them sell candy for school.
“He was always talking about family. He wanted a family,” Truitt said. “He cared about his family being connected with each other. He cared about having somebody care about him.”
But when their relationship soured, she saw a man who snapped while gathering his things from her house after the breakup. He threw a brick through Truitt’s window and threatened to burn her apartment unit down — leaving behind a trail of lighter fluid to prove it, according to court documents. Clark pleaded guilty to terroristic threats for the March incident, getting a probation sentence and an order not to contact Truitt.
Despite the order, Clark eventually reached out through Facebook to apologize — and Truitt accepted. He was going to sign up for community college, he told her.
He had a good heart but he didn’t have the structure to be the person he wanted to be, Truitt said.
“He was trying to learn,” she said. “He was looking for direction.”
As pictures of Clark circulated online after his death, Hoag saw Clark’s sly grin in a selfie, wearing his Copeland Trucking hat. Hoag let out a sigh pierced with pain.
“It makes me feel like a failure,” she said of that photo. “I’m sitting here wishing I had done more. I wish I had made one more phone call. I wish we would have been able to give him a few more hours.”