After a Black Cop Was Convicted Of Killing a White Woman, Minnesota Activists Say Focus Should Be Police Reform

Originally published in The Intercept on May 2, 2019.
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ON WEDNESDAY EVENING, outside the Hennepin County government building in downtown Minneapolis, a few dozen community activists gathered in the cold to process the rare and polarizing conviction of Mohamed Noor, a Somali American and former police officer. A day earlier, a Hennepin County jury found 33-year-old Noor guilty of third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter in the death of Justine Ruszczyk Damond, who had called the police to report a possible sexual assault in her neighborhood in the summer of 2017. Noor shot and killed her, and at trial, he claimed self-defense.

The case has galvanized local activists, some of whom embraced the verdict and others who say that, in a criminal justice system where cops are rarely held accountable for on-duty killings, Noor was unfairly targeted because he is a black man who killed a white woman.

At the rally, Leslie Redmond, the president of the Minneapolis branch of the NAACP, said the case was a “scapegoat” against a man of color to fool residents into thinking “the police force is in tact.” Nekima Levy Armstrong, a civil rights lawyer and local racial justice leader, said Noor’s conviction reveals how the court system treats white people differently compared to everyone else.

Family members of other police shooting victims gave speeches, including Kimberly Handy-Jones, a mother who lost her 29-year-old son to St. Paul police in 2017, and Don Amorosi who lost his 16-year-old son to Carver County deputies last summer. Activists held up signs for other local victims of police shootings, like Tycel Nelson, a 17-year-old shot and killed in Minneapolis in 1990, and Philip Quinn, a 30-year-old shot and killed by a St. Paul police officer in 2015.

Noor’s conviction marks the first guilty verdict for a fatal shooting by an on-duty cop in Minnesota in decades — something that brings both relief to advocates who seek greater accountability for police shootings but also anguish, as residents wrestle with the racial realities of the conviction. Meanwhile, in recent police killings of unarmed black men in the Twin Cities, white cops involved were either not charged at all or acquitted of charges. According to data compiled by the Star Tribune, Noor’s case marks the first conviction out of 179 police-involved deaths in Minnesota since 2000.

“There would have been no trial if Noor’s victim was African American or Native American, and I think the vast majority of people in our movement believe that,” said Jess Sundin, an activist with the Twin Cities Coalition for Justice4Jamar; the group is named after 24-year-old Jamar Clark, a black man shot to death by Minneapolis police in 2015 and whose killers faced no criminal charges. “There also would have also been no conviction if it was a white police officer.”

The July 2017 killing led to a number of shuffles within the police department. Following Damond’s death, then-Minneapolis mayor Betsy Hodges requested the city’s police chief step down, leading to the appointment of Medaria Arradondo, the city’s first African American police chief. Noor was fired shortly after being charged in March 2018.

In the wake of the verdict, a broad swath of activists are seeking to build on their multi-year efforts to reform the police and use Damond’s case as a way to highlight racial disparities in the criminal justice system. There has been global interest in the case because Damond was Australian, and the activists are leveraging that attention to make their concerns and demands known to a wider audience.

A GROUP OF Damond’s neighbors, who started organizing under the banner of Justice4Justine shortly after her death, planned the rally with the backing of local groups, including the Twin Cities Coalition for Justice4Jamar, Black Lives Matter Minnesota, and Communities United Against Police Brutality.

Todd Schuman, an activist with Justice4Justine, told The Intercept they planned the rally because “we’re not afraid to say that in the dozens of other examples where white officers shot black victims, there wasn’t anything close to the level of investigative rigor, anywhere close to the level of media coverage, or a result in a conviction.” Schuman emphasized that his group is “not afraid to name that disparity, and we want to create a space where families of police violence victims who did not receive justice have their opportunity to share their perspective.”

Noor’s guilty verdict has had reverberations throughout Minnesota, galvanizing not only the activists who held the Wednesday rally, but also prompting reactions from elected officials and the local Somali community.

Rep. Ilhan Omar, whose legislative district includes Minneapolis, released a statement on Wednesday morning calling Noor’s guilty verdict “an important step towards justice and a victory for all who oppose police brutality.” Omar also said it cannot be lost that Noor’s verdict comes in the wake of other acquittals for officers who took the lives of people of color, and called for “the same level of accountability and justice” for all officer-involved killings. Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey said in a statement that the city must come together, and that Minneapolis stands with both the Somali community and the local police. “Wherever a person’s beliefs may part ways with today’s decision, we should find comfort in knowing that not one person in Minneapolis hoped for what transpired that July night,” he said.

Other members of the local Somali community said Noor was wrongfully convicted. Community leader Omar Jamal told local news outlet WCCO that many Somali people had called him to say they feel Noor was innocent. Noor’s cousin, Goth Ali, told the Star Tribune that the decision was “shocking” and that he thought Noor “didn’t get a fair trial.”

The Somali American Police Association, or SAPA, released a statement saying it “believes the institutional prejudices against people of color, including officers of color, have heavily influenced the verdict of this case.” The “aggressive manner” taken by the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office, the group said, “reveals that there were other motives at play other than serving justice.” SAPA, which expressed condolences to Damond’s family, said it fears the “differential treatment” given to minority officers will “have a devastating effect on police morale and make the recruitment of minority officers all the more difficult.”

The incident is reminiscent in some respects to the 2014 killing of 28-year-old Akai Gurley, a black man shot by a Chinese American police officer while in a Brooklyn public housing complex. Gurley’s death came just four months after Eric Garner, another black New Yorker, was killed after being placed in a chokehold by a white police officer. In Gurley’s case, NYPD cop Peter Liang was indicted in 2015, a rarity for police-involved killings, and in 2016, a jury found him guilty of manslaughter — another extremely rare outcome. The charges sparked some of the largest Asian American protests in decades, as Liang’s supporters accused prosecutors of scapegoating Liang due to his race. (Two months after Liang’s conviction, a judge reduced the charges, sentencing him to just five years of probation and 800 hours of community service.)

Reached for comment, Minneapolis Police Union President Lt. Bob Kroll said his union “respects the legal process and the findings of the jury.” He said this has been an “extremely unfortunate situation for all involved” and that his union sends condolences to Ruszczyk’s family, and that “our thoughts are with former Officer Noor.” At the rally on Wednesday evening, activists said Kroll threw Noor under the bus by firing him and only nominally speaking up in support of him; they argued the union would have more vigorously defended a white officer. Justice4Justine criticized the police union’s statement on the verdict as “empty and vapid.”

The Minneapolis Police Department did not return request for comment, but Arradondo, the chief of police, released a statement on Tuesday to say he “respect[s] the verdict rendered” and will “ensure that the MPD learns from this case and we will be in spaces to listen, learn and do all we can to help our communities in healing.” Through collaboration and partnerships, he added, “I am hopeful that we will strengthen our community wellness and safety.”

WHEN JUSTICE4JUSTINE FIRST formed, neighbors focused primarily on supporting Justine’s grieving fiancé, Don Damond, and the Ruszczyk family, who are based in Australia. Over time, according to Schuman, the group began shifting their energies toward police reform and police violence more broadly.

“We have a lot of mixed feelings,” Schuman said of the verdict. “We said from almost day one that for us, this is more than just one trial and one verdict, and while we wanted a conviction, in this case, the real justice that we’re looking for is a comprehensive reform of the police. Our commitment is to a justice system where what Justine got is what everyone gets.”

One of the concrete policy changes racial justice organizations in the Twin Cities have pushed for is ending so-called “warrior-style” police trainings, which activists describe as a fear-based approach that encourages cops to believe they are always under threat. Last May, about four dozen people staged a protest outside the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minnesota, to call for the mall to stop sponsoring the trainings and for local police departments to stop using them.

Last month, in a victory for activists, Frey, the Minneapolis mayor, announced that the city’s police officers will no longer be allowed to use the warrior-style training. “Chief Medaria Arradondo’s police department rests on trust, accountability, and professional service,” the mayor said in his recent State of the City address. “Whereas fear-based, warrior-style trainings like ‘killology’ are in direct conflict with everything that our chief and I stand for in our police department. Fear-based trainings violate the values at the very heart of community policing.”

Sundin of the Twin Cities Coalition for Justice4Jamar told The Intercept that her group remains focused on prosecution for Jamar’s killers, hoping to see the case reopened. Sundin said her group is also focused on getting community control over the police through an elected board of community representatives. “Our experience has been that the mayor and the city council—both those presently in office and those before—have been unwilling to fire abusive police officers, and we want that to change,” she said. “We think the community has every right to decide who policies our communities and how.” Community control would go beyond just disciplining officers when something goes wrong, Sundin explained, and would also include “writing the rule book” for police officers and negotiating contracts.

When asked to reflect on how things have evolved since 2015, Sundin said she thinks there is a greater recognition of police brutality among residents of the Twin Cities and a deeper understanding from the media to not “parrot the police’s story without looking into it first.”

Sundin also says the Minneapolis police chief being asked to resign following Damond’s death marked a significant development, because a police chief “had never before been held accountable for the police killings that happen under their watch.” Arradondo replaced Janeé Harteau, who stepped down in July 2017.

The last difference, Sundin said, is that she thinks there’s a much greater awareness surrounding the “shoddy investigation work” conducted by the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, a state agency that helps law enforcement agencies prevent and solve crimes. In December 2017, a video surfaced of Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman telling a group of union members that the BCA was doing a poor job of collecting evidence that could lead to charges against Noor. While Freeman later apologized for his remarks and said he didn’t know he was being recorded, he also extended the time for the BCA investigation, something Sundin says has never happened before.

“Every family we’ve ever talked to has had the experience of the BCA botching investigations, but in Justine’s case, it came to light because Mr. Freeman was caught on tape criticizing the BCA for its bad investigatory work,” Sundin said. During the trial, which was held in April, prosecutors also criticized the BCA for its initial handling of the investigation, citing things like waiting three days to interview the only witness and refusing to investigate the source of the screaming that prompted Damond to call the police in the first place. On Wednesday, Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz announced that his office was looking into the allegations surrounding the BCA’s investigation.

Chuck Laszewski, a spokesperson for Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman, told The Intercept his office is not taking individual interviews on the case until Noor is sentenced on June 7. At a press conference after the trial, though, when Freeman was asked about the allegations that he worked harder to charge a black officer who killed a white woman, Freeman denied that he would have behaved differently in the case of a black person shot by a white cop. “Race has never been a factor in making any decision and never will be,” Freeman said. “We have charged white cops with crimes, and we will again.”

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