MINNEAPOLIS (KMSP) - Minneapolis awoke last Sunday morning to the news that another police officer had killed another citizen, with scant details about the encounter and a growing refrain of people demanding answers.
Within a few late-night hours a gunshot fired from a police cruiser would turn a quiet street corner in the Fulton neighborhood into a hub of activity and back again, leaving little more than a few street cleaners and reporters by daybreak. That calm, however, wouldn’t last for long.
As an otherwise typical Minnesota summer day progressed, the nation - and then the world - tuned in.
A short release from the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, which leads the independent investigations into Minneapolis police shootings, gave a bare-bones outline of the evening’s events:
A police officer fired his weapon and killed a woman whose identity will be released by the medical examiner pending an autopsy. No weapons were recovered from the scene. The officer’s body cameras were turned off at the time and the dashboard camera did not capture any video of the incident. More information will be available soon.
That middle portion would became very important very quickly—Minneapolis police released its final body camera policy last year, which indicates that the devices should be activated prior to any use of force, or at least in the immediate aftermath.
Mayor Betsy Hodges and the assistant police chief (the current Chief, Janeé Harteau, was out of town on “previously scheduled personal time”) held a press conference to explain the details, though at one point the mayor said she was “heartsick” and “deeply disturbed” by the shooting.
That afternoon, we learned the victim’s name—Justine Damond. We learned she was a native Australian, a soon-to-be-married meditation teacher who lived in the neighborhood and had called 911 just minutes prior to report what she thought was a sexual assault. That night a large vigil, complete with heartfelt statements from family and friends and calls to end police violence, brought people back to the corner of West 51st Street and Washburn Avenue.
Many sought it out, driven politically, socially, compassionately, to show their support. Others went about a normal summer Sunday afternoon and couldn’t leave behind that feeling, attending out of a strange fascination with the day’s events.
A patch of newly cleaned pavement marks the spot where Justine lay, marked almost immediately with hundreds of statements—names, symbols, words of support from family, friends, community members, activists, well wishers.
“It’s human now, isn’t it?”
“Loving woman, spiritual healer.”
“It’s not too late to evolve.”
Names—some dead, some still living—encircled by multicolor hearts line the steps to the home where Damond lived, each one as special to someone as she was to a group of people gathered in a Minneapolis alleyway on a warm July evening.
Monday came and the police officer’s name was confirmed. Mohamed Noor, the Fifth Precinct’s first Somali-American police officer, expressed his condolences to the victim’s family in a statement. He was three months shy of his second year with the department and a well-respected member of his community according to everyone willing to speak on the subject.
“He came to the United States at a young age and is thankful to have had so many opportunities,” his lawyer from the Tom Plunkett Law Office said in the statement. “The current environment for police is difficult, but Officer Noor accepts this as part of his calling.”
Ultimately, he declined to speak with the BCA. It’s his right under the same Fifth Amendment that protects regular citizens, but many in the community, most notably Mayor Betsy Hodges, said they wish he would tell his side of the story.
Noor’s partner—Officer Matthew Harrity— however, gave his account of events to investigators.
911 tapes show Damond called police at 11:27 p.m. to report what she believed was a sexual assault happening behind her house, saying she heard screaming and possibly the word “help.”
“We’ve already got help on the way,” they said.
She gave dispatchers her address, as well as her name and phone number, and hung up. Almost 10 minutes later, she called again.
“I was wondering if they got the address wrong.”
Two minutes later, the officers arrived.
According to both Harrity’s account and a police report, the two officers drove through the alleyway between Washburn and Xerxes, heading northbound between 52nd and 51st Street behind Damond’s house. Harrity said he was driving and Noor was in the front passenger seat as their car approached 51st Street when a loud noise, later identified in a search warrant as Damond "slapping" their squad car, startled the pair.
Immediately afterward Damond approached the driver’s side door of the car, and Noor fired through the open window. She was struck, and though both officers attempted to provide aid, she was pronounced dead at the scene.
The Bureau of Criminal Apprehension took over all “critical incident” investigations regarding police officers in 2014 at the request of the City of Minneapolis, meaning that even if they wanted to share more information with the public, they do not have access to it—until the BCA investigation concludes or the criminal trial ends, depending on whether Noor is charged.
Hodges, in various public statements, laments that fact but ultimately always asks for patience as the investigation proceeds.
“I have a lot of questions, as you do,” she said at a press conference Monday. “Many of you have asked why the officers’ body cameras weren’t activated, and I’m asking the same question. Right now, we don’t know.”
“To prove that a police officer used unreasonable force in causing death of a citizen is a very high burden,” Former Ramsey County Attorney Susan Gaertner said. “The case law is favorable. They have a tough job and we’re reluctant to second guess their decisions.”
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Many who have gathered in the aftermath of the shooting have expressed how the events of the last few years—Justine Damond’s death included—make them feel wary of calling police. Transparency and accountability are the two things any police force needs to cultivate in order to maintain a good relationship with the public, experts say, and events like this only serve to destroy those efforts.
State Rep. Ilhan Omar, DFL-Minneapolis, the nation’s highest-elected Somali-American public official, went so far as to call it a “result of excessive force and violence-based training for supposed peace officers."
On the flipside, this public sentiment can also make officers feel afraid as their partnership with the cities they serve begins to fray.
“It's not a good climate at this point,” Tanya Gladney, a University of St. Thomas Associate Professor of Sociology and Criminal Justice, said. “It's time to revisit that partnership and how that partnership needs to change on behalf of the community and how they [the police] can better serve the community.”
HARTEAU RETURNS, THEN RESIGNS
Minneapolis Police Chief Janeé Harteau was out of town when the shooting occurred, not returning for more than four days while "backpacking in the mountains." Her remote location, she said, made it difficult to return--though city officials maintain nothing that needed to happen was impacted by her absence.
In her first statement since the fatal officer-involved shooting, she had some strong words to share.
"On our squad cars you will find the words, 'To protect with courage and serve with compassion,'" Harteau said as the press conference opened. "This did not happen."
She said the MPD is currently looking into technology that activates body cameras when service weapons are unholstered or squad car lights are activated, though the first priority is still to make turning on the cameras second nature--something that hasn't happened in the eight months since the devices became standard issue.
In spite of this, she said the devices should have been activated.
Harteau resigned from her position Friday at the request of Mayor Betsy Hodges. The president of the Minneapolis police union called it "long overdue."
Protesters of the shooting interrupted Mayor Hodges' press conference about Harteau resigning. A protester called for Hodges' resignation as well.
‘PAGE ONE NEWS’
Newspapers and television programs, in various languages and formats and media all blasted Justine’s smiling face to the ends of the earth in the days following her death.
Her family's pleas for justice seemed to fall on deaf ears across an ocean.
“AMERICAN NIGHTMARE,” Sydney’s Daily Telegraph proclaimed on its front page. Another article quoted multiple friends who recalled Damond’s only fear about moving to the United States—guns, and police who aren’t afraid to use them.
The Australian Prime Minister took to the airwaves on Australia’s Today Show to “demand answers,” calling the shooting “inexplicable.”
“It would have never happened here,” a New York Times’ editor in Australia wrote. A mass shooting in 1996 transformed the way people there think about firearms, with stringent, standardized gun laws enacted across the country—and by extension, lowering the number of shootings dramatically.
As Australians gathered to mourn, television crews and writers from across the country boarded flights to Minnesota, eager to investigate the events that led to her death.
“It’s page one news,” one reporter said.
Five days later, it still is.
Statement from Officer Noor's lawyer:
Officer Mohamed Noor extends his condolences to the family and anyone else who has been touched by this event. He takes their loss seriously and keeps them in his daily thoughts and prayers.
He came to the United States at a young age and is thankful to have had so many opportunities. He takes these events very seriously because, for him, being a police officer is a calling. He joined the police force to serve the community and to protect the people he serves. Officer Noor is a caring person with a family he loves and he empathizes with the loss others are experiencing.
The current environment for police is difficult, but Officer Noor accepts this as part of his calling. We would like to say more, and will in the future. At this time, however, there are several investigations ongoing and Officer Noor wants to respect the privacy to the family and asks the same in return during this difficult period.
Statement from Chief Janee Harteau
I want to acknowledge the pain and frustration that family and community members have following the fatal officer involved shooting on Saturday night. This is clearly a tragic death.
I also want to assure you that I understand why so many people have so many questions at this point. I have many of the same questions and it is why we immediately asked for an external and independent investigation into the officer-involved shooting death. I've asked for the investigation to be expedited to provide transparency and to answer as many questions as quickly as we can.
Statement from Mayor Betsy Hodges
I’ve learned from all of you that communication is vital in difficult times like these, so if you’re noticing that I’m communicating more now than I have around past events, that’s why. I want to be responsive to what I’ve heard you need from me in the face of this devastating tragedy. Even as I continue to press for more substantive updates, I want to keep you in the loop as to what’s been going on in my office over the past day or so.
Justine Damond’s tragic death impacts her family and our community first and and foremost. I've been in contact with her family, and am doing what I can to be of service to them. Still, this has understandably attracted a great deal of media attention, so I spent the early hours of this morning appearing on a number of news programs, including WCCO's Morning Show and several national broadcasts. I've also spoken to media in Australia, as the nation grieves the loss of one of their own.
Since my last update I’ve maintained consistent communication with the City Council, to make sure they’re able to share the most recent and most accurate information with their constituents.
We’re continuing to reach out to a number of stakeholders, neighborhood leaders, community advocates and others—including residents of Justine's block—to ensure we’re hearing their questions and concerns and sharing information with them as well. I also sent a message to my email list—in the hopes of getting information to those who aren’t following my social media posts.
We’re also in contact with our state and federal legislators, in addition to our ongoing communication with Governor Dayton’s office.
I want to say that I appreciate the dialogue from all of you on these posts. So many of you have been honest, caring and constructive — even amid pain and anger, and even when we don't agree. One of Minneapolis’ great strengths is that we come together when we face challenges. I’ve seen that so far, and thank you.
Statement from Rep. Ilhan Omar
I’m deeply heartbroken and disturbed by the death of Justine Damond, in the hands of Minneapolis Police Department Officer Mohamed Noor. The idealist in me continues to be surprised, but I know this incident is another result of excessive force and violence-based training for supposed peace officers. The BCA needs to release information as fast as they can about this incident—our city has questions that need to be answered. My thoughts, prayers, and love are with Justine’s family and friends—with my wounded city.
Changing the body camera policy won’t solve the inherent problem. The current officer training program indoctrinates individuals of all races into a system that teaches them to act first, think later, and justify with fear. It’s time we explore solutions beyond improved training and cameras to capture evidence. We need to look at a complete shift in the culture of the police department, away from the use of lethal force and deadly weapons.