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The politics of police shootings



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.

Former Minneapolis police officer Mohamed Noor in 2017 at the commencement of his trial for the shooting death of Justine Damond (Photo by Stephen Maturen / Getty Images)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 he was reaching for his license, was recorded and streamed on Facebook by his girlfriend. Officials proved aloof: Castile had been pulled over 49 times for mostly minor traffic violations.


"The rule of law and its variable appraisal of both perpetrators and victims remain marked by the politics of cruel difference."


Yanez was charged with manslaughter and predictably acquitted. While pleased by the efforts made in the Damond case, Castile's mother, Valerie, could not help but note disparities. The jury in her son's case, for instance, had been selected in one day; it had taken a week for Damond.

When the disparity between the cases on the issue of prosecution and treatment was noted to Freeman, he coolly dismissed it. 'We have to look at each case based on the facts and the evidence and the law in front of us.'

While Noor offered a suitable demonology, Damond offered the prospect of commemoration and worship. Identity Evripa, a California-based white nationalist group, created a memorial in her honour featuring candles, flowers, a framed portrait and a sign saying 'United We Stand'. The initial vacillation over bringing charges against Noor was noted by the group. 'One family will be having an incomplete Christmas this year.' Elder did remove the makeshift memorial, claiming that he could not allow 'anything like that to be put up at that location'.

The legal process, it seemed, had found their man. The subtext here was that letting Noor off would have been dangerous, with relations between the MPD in otherwise safe and affluent areas damaged. 'People's willingness to interact with police officers,' suggested Todd Schuman, a resident near the site of Damond's shooting, 'has taken a decline.' Schuman would be subsequently warning his two children 'about their interactions with police officers'. In doing so, he echoed the sentiments of thousands of black residents.

For all that, a troubling note of self-congratulation seemed to prevail at Noor's demise. The MPD would be reformed. Suitable catharsis had been reached. There was even a somewhat smug temper in Australian coverage of the trial, with the ABC's Conor Duffy speculating that Damond, had she returned to Sydney as originally intended, would hardly have been shot in Sydney in similar fashion.

The more relevant and tragic point is that the rule of law and its variable appraisal of both perpetrators and victims in America's police culture, remain marked by the politics of cruel difference. In Valerie Castile's words, 'it's so unfortunate in our country people are treated differently'.



Binoy KampmarkDr Binoy Kampmark is a former Commonwealth Scholar who lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne.

Main image: Former Minneapolis police officer Mohamed Noor in 2017 at the commencement of his trial for the shooting death of Justine Damond (Photo by Stephen Maturen / Getty Images)

Topic tags: Binoy Kampmark



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Existing comments

I will admit that when I heard the 'guilty' verdict against Mohamad Noor my thoughts were with Justine Damond's fiancé and family. Noor's actions on that fateful night resulted in the death of an innocent woman. That the perpetrator is a man of colour and the victim a white female should not be the subject of political inference, yet this has undoubtedly entered the public consciousness. What allowed this to happen? A culture of disregard for the sanctity of human life, whether it be people of colour or white people. Mohamad Noor's training was obviously woefully inadequate. And black people in America, as elsewhere, still are significantly disadvantaged.

Pam | 03 May 2019  

Binoy, I thought Mohamad Noor's actions in shooting Justine displayed a callous indifference for the sanctity of human life and an unbelievable arrogance in the circumstances. Just because he is a cop with a weapon doesnt give him the right to blast someone in an alley just because he heard a noise. Sure there are ethnic differences and the Castile case probably went the wrong way. Trigger happy cops are an absolute menace. When I was 18 we were travelling to Cairns through West Wyalong and were pulled over for speeding (80 km in a 60km Street) at 5.00am on Christmas morning. I was sleeping in the back seat. The cop pulled my friend driving out of the car and punched him 5 times in the head. (he was only 5 foot 3 inches tall). When I attempted to get out the back door he slammed the door on my leg and grabbed at his gun, saying any arguments would be settled with this. So as well as a punching and a speeding ticket we were threatened as well. "Victorian police account 38% of fatal police shootings in Australia, followed by NSW (24%). Queensland account 14% of deaths." Conversation 25/11/2014.

Francis Armstrong | 04 May 2019  

This case was always going to be controversial because of Identity Politics. US race relations greatly improved over recent decades due to leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. Those gains are now threatened by Identity Politics. Black students at Harvard, Stanford and Columbia Universities now have separate black-only graduation ceremonies; a lawsuit against Harvard alleges it discriminates against Asian-American applicants; at Oberlin College allegations of anti-Semitism saw the Holocaust dismissed as “white on white crime,”—nothing really to worry about. Intellectual discourse has become degraded, and reason is replaced by sloganeering based on which group can most successfully proclaim itself to be a victim. Indeed, Identity Politics can advance one’s career and power. In 1987 Al Sharpton proclaimed that a group of racist white men viciously attacked a young black woman, Tawana Brawley. The story caused bitter racial divisions. But it was a lie, and Sharpton was ordered to pay damages for accusing innocent men of rape. In 1991, Sharpton led marchers carrying anti-Semitic placards during the Crown Heights Riots. These actions turned Sharpton into a civil rights leader who became an advisor to Barack Obama. Today, every 2020 Democratic Presidential aspirant has paid homage to Sharpton seeking his endorsement.

Ross Howard | 05 May 2019  

"His training was woefully inadequate". Pam I agree with you. I also happen to believe that he acted on the basis of his training. This may legitimately be considered an inadequate defence.

Margaret | 06 May 2019  

My initial reaction to the prosecution of Noor was that this police officer didn't stand a chance - his name identifying him as a Muslim, whether he is or not, in a climate of increased anti-Muslim sentiment. And I do retain that impression. However, hearing his testimony that he reacted in accord with his training to shoot in 'self defence' rather than risk being shot is feasible. Given the high rate of police killings of (mainly) African American people, with very few police convictions for such incidents, it appears that such defence is usually accepted by the courts. This in turn indicates that police training is at fault, because it causes such a high rate of innocent people being killed by police. We can only hope that the same "shoot first" approach does not become the norm in Australia.

Ian Fraser | 06 May 2019  

It's pretty clear that race had nothing to do with this. Unfortunately in the current climate in the USA everything is seen as racial, but it's very disappointing to see an Australian subscribing to this. There is absolutely no comparison between the two cases. Miss Damond flagged down the police car to ask for help and the cop promptly shot her dead in cold blood. Castile was a serial offender (yes "mostly" his convictions were minor, but that implies the rest were major.) The cops pulled him over suspecting him of an armed robbery. He told the cops he had a gun and appeared to be reaching to grab it and continued to do so despite the cops warning him not to. The cop (who is not "white" but "Hispanic" according to the USA racial classification) then shot him.

Peter K | 06 May 2019  

I think it is worrying the way you select which verdicts you find acceptable and which you don’t, and you are using the race card to say this woman’s cold killing was in some way understandable. Take race out of it, the circumstances are different from other dreadful police killings, this woman was unarmed, in her nightwear, asking for help. That this is not the basis for understanding the case is troubling and misleading. The bigger debate is the abuse of police power.

Rosemary Sheehan | 11 May 2019  

Minnesota police, according to the public record, have shot and killed dozens of people, mainly African Americans, without a single case being brought against them. The killing of Black persons by mainly White police officers is a normal occurrence in the US. This being the first instance in which a White person has been killed by a Black officer, it beggars belief that the officer, when charged should be found guilty and that the verdict be regarded as a fair one. Go check your probabilities!

Michael Furtado | 16 May 2019  

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