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The politics of police shootings

  • 02 May 2019


In July 2017, dual Australian-US citizen Justine Damond called 911 in the city of Minneapolis, wishing to report what she feared might be a sexual assault taking place at the back of her home. On approaching the police vehicle sent to the scene, she was slain by officer Mohamed Noor.

The response to the killing immediately raised eyebrows. For one, there was a response to Noor's actions, an on-duty officer who had deployed his fire arm in dangerously cavalier fashion. He was subsequently charged with murder and manslaughter. Minneapolis police spokesman John Elder was quick to insist that race had no part to play. The optics were troublingly different, as Noor was inaccurately accused of being a fast-tract affirmative action hire.

A Minnesota jury duly found Noor guilty of third degree murder and manslaughter, though acquitted him of a count of second-degree murder. He had become the first police officer to be convicted of murder in Minnesota in 'recent memory' — a statement worth recalling in and of itself.

Damond's fiancé, Don, hoped the verdict would lead to reforms of the Minneapolis Police Department in policies and procedures. (A change to the vague body camera policy, and the resignation of Minneapolis' police chief, had already taken place.) Her grieving father, John Ruszczyk, was content that the decision 'reflects the community's commitment to three important pillars of a civil society — the rule of law, the respect for the sanctity of life, and the obligation of the police force to serve and protect'.

A closer reading of the entire process presents a more complex, and troubling picture. From the start, this case seemed different. Then Chief Janee Harteau was impatient to get proceedings against Noor going. A little bit of premature adjudication was also thrown into the mix, but this did not endear her. Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges wanted a scalp and demanded the veteran's resignation, having 'lost confidence in the chief's ability to lead us further'.

Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman also fell into the over-enthusiastic trap of publicly pressing the case against Noor, expressing frustration before union members in a recorded address at what seemed to be a lack of initial evidence. Authorities, and officials, wanted a conviction.

This was in stark contrast to the previous year's killing of Philando Castile by MPD's Jeronimo Yanez, a police officer who pulled over his victim for a broken tail light. Castile's death, inflicted by five shots as