A makeshift memorial is left at the scene where a Minneapolis police officer shot and killed Justine Damond, Monday, July 17, 2017 in Minneapolis, Minn. The Bureau of Criminal Apprehension released a statement Sunday saying two Minneapolis officers responded to a 911 call for a potential assault late Saturday. Exact details weren't released, but officials said an officer fired a gun, killing Diamond. (Elizabeth Flores/Star Tribune via AP)
Family of slain Minnesota woman want answers from police
MINNEAPOLIS — Relatives and neighbors of an Australian woman fatally shot by Minneapolis police over the weekend demanded answers Monday about the mysterious shooting in which the meditation teacher was reportedly killed by an officer who fired from the passenger seat of a squad car as the woman stood outside the driver’s door.
Authorities released no details about what led to the shooting of Justine Damond, whose fiance said she had called 911 to report what she believed was a sexual assault in an alley near her home.
Police said officers were responding to a call about a possible assault late Saturday when she was killed. There were no known witnesses other than the two officers in the squad car that showed up. A newspaper report said Damond was shot while standing alongside the car in her pajamas.
The Hennepin County Medical Examiner’s office on Monday night said the woman died of a gunshot wound to the abdomen. She was identified in the report by her maiden name, Justine Ruszczyk. The Star Tribune reported that she was engaged to be married in August and was using her fiance’s last name.
Her death was ruled a homicide.
Her fiancé, Don Damond, said the family has been given almost no additional information about what happened after police arrived.
“We’ve lost the dearest of people, and we’re desperate for information,” he said. “Piecing together Justine’s last moments before the homicide would be a small comfort as we grieve this tragedy.”
Damond’s family members in Australia also released a statement Monday through Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, saying they “are trying to come to terms with this tragedy and to understand why this has happened.”
Almost two days after her death, police offered no public explanation and referred questions to the state’s Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, which was investigating. A Monday statement from the BCA said more information would be provided once the officers were interviewed.
The BCA said Monday that no weapons were found at the scene.
Local media identified the officer who fired as Mohamed Noor, who is a Somali-American. A city newsletter said he joined the police department in March 2015.
His attorney, Tom Plunkett, released a statement saying Noor offered his condolences to the family “and keeps them in his daily thoughts and prayers.”
The statement added: “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.”
Noor was sued earlier this year after a May 25 incident in which he and other officers took a woman to the hospital on a mental health hold. The lawsuit claims Noor and the other officers violated the woman’s rights when they entered her home without her permission and Noor grabbed her wrist and upper arm. Noor relaxed his grip when the woman said she had a previous shoulder injury, the lawsuit says.
Television station KSTP reported that city records show Noor had three complaints on file. The station did not provide details on the nature of the complaints but said one was dismissed with no disciplinary action and the other two are pending.
The Star Tribune, citing three people with knowledge of the shooting it did not name, said the officers pulled into the alley in a squad car, and Damond talked to the driver. The newspaper’s sources said the officer in the passenger seat shot Damond through the driver’s-side door. A BCA spokeswoman did not return messages seeking to confirm that account.
Neighbor Joan Hargrave called the killing “an execution” and said there was no reason for a well-trained officer to see Damond as a threat.
“This is a tragedy — that someone who’s asking for help would call the police and get shot by the police,” Hargrave said.
Officials said the officers’ body cameras were not turned on and that a squad car camera did not capture the shooting. Investigators were still trying to determine whether other video exists.
It’s not clear why the officers’ body cameras were not turned on. The department has phased in body cameras for all of its officers over the last year. Department policy allows for a range of situations in which officers are supposed to turn cameras on, including “any contact involving criminal activity” and before use of force. If a body camera is not turned on before use of force, it’s supposed to be turned on as soon as it’s safe to do so.
Once the investigation is complete, Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman would decide whether to charge the officer. Freeman would not comment on the broader case Monday, but said both officers likely should have turned on their body cameras as they were approached by Damond in an alley.
Police Chief Janee Harteau called the killing a “tragic death” and said she understands why the community has questions. “I’ve asked for the investigation to be expedited to provide transparency and to answer as many questions as quickly as we can,” she said.
The Fulton neighborhood where the shooting happened is a mix of middle- and upper-middle-class homes about a half-mile from city lakes that are a popular destination for residents and tourists.
Some 50 friends and neighbors gathered in a semicircle Sunday near the shooting site, with many more looking on from the sidewalk and street. Chalk hearts containing the names of some people who were victims of police violence were drawn on the driveway.
By Monday, flowers had also been left at the scene, along with a handwritten sign that asked, “Why did you shoot and kill our neighbor?”
Damond’s death is yet another high-profile police shooting in the Twin Cities area in recent years. Last year, 32-year-old Philando Castile was killed by an officer during a traffic stop in a nearby suburb after he told the officer he was armed. And in November 2015, a Minneapolis police officer shot and killed Jamar Clark during a struggle in which the officer said Clark grabbed his partner’s weapon.
Damond’s business website indicates that she relocated to Minneapolis and worked as a yoga instructor, meditation teacher and personal health and life coach.
Nancy Coune, administrator at the Lake Harriet Spiritual Community in Minneapolis, said Damond came to Minneapolis about three years ago to be with her fiancé, and she had been teaching and speaking at the center for more than two years.
Damond’s mother was Australian, and she spent her formative years there, but also spent some of her early childhood in the Buffalo, New York, area, said Peter Suffoletto, a cousin of Damond’s father.