Democracy Dies in Darkness

National

In Minneapolis, response to police shooting of white woman by Somali officer has been different

By Janell Ross

August 2, 2017 at 5:00 AM

Signs remain at a memorial for Justine Damond at the church she attended, Lake Harriet Spiritual Community in Minneapolis, on July 26. (Jenn Ackerman/For the Washington Post)

MINNEAPOLIS — Kim Handy-Jones stands at the front of a meeting room in a working-class portion of southeast Minneapolis, large pieces of butcher paper labeled "Body Cams," "Accountability" and "Training" hanging behind her. In the months since a police officer shot and killed her son in neighboring St. Paul, Handy-Jones has met here regularly with a dozen or so longtime Twin Cities advocates of police reform.

But this meeting is different. This time, the room is full. Some of the nearly 80 people present have to stand.

And this time, the majority is white.

Handy-Jones, who is black, pauses and bows her head, displaying the intricacies of her braided updo. It's as though she's considering her words, what she can and what she must say.

"I am so glad — truly, my heart is glad — to see this room so full," she says softly, before building in a crescendo.

Kim Handy-Jones , center, speaks at a “Justice for Justine” event July 25 in Minneapolis. (Jenn Ackerman/For the Washington Post)

"Now, most of y'all were not here when my son was killed. . . . But this is about life, human life, not black and white, not just my son or your neighbor, but about all of us," she continues. "It took Justine's death to make that clear, I think, for some of y'all. But I really do welcome y'all to the fight." 

This is Minneapolis, nearly two weeks after city police officer Mohamed Noor fatally shot Justine Damond, an Australian woman who moved here in 2015 to join her fiance. It has become a city divided: The usual loyalties that bind are strained and the ideals that tend to unite — namely equal justice under the law — have become a source of pressure, forcing new alliances and revealing fissures.

In the shooting's aftermath, the police union has been largely silent in defending one of its own. The city's white, female mayor — facing a difficult reelection bid in which policing has become a primary issue — demanded and received the resignation of the white, female police chief. Local Somali American leaders have distanced their community from Noor, expressing dismay about news coverage and public chatter that tied one Somali American officer's actions to the entire community and culture.

And while some white residents long have been engaged in calls for police reforms, advocates say their numbers have suddenly grown.

The shifts in Minneapolis reflect a nationwide debate about officers' use of force, an issue that became inflamed last week when, during a speech to law enforcement officers, President Trump told them not to "be too nice" to suspects and said they shouldn't protect suspects' heads when putting them in squad cars. White House officials have said Trump was joking, but the comments received swift backlash from law enforcement leaders nationwide.

The Twin Cities area has experienced contentious police shootings before, including the death of Philando Castile, who was shot during a traffic stop in a St. Paul suburb in July 2016. But the response to this shooting has been different. The reason, some say, is clear: The victim was white, and the police officer involved is a black immigrant.

John Thompson — a local activist who shouted down Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges (D) and demanded her resignation during a news conference after Damond was killed — said he welcomes newcomers to the cause. Thompson became involved last year after the killing of Castile, his friend and co-worker of 11 years. Thompson, who is black, considers Castile's death and a jury's decision to acquit the officer involved an indelible stain on Minnesota. He was disturbed by the way Castile — a man he calls a loving father who liked to play chess and video games — was too often portrayed as an armed and dangerous weed smoker.

Watch more!
Australia native Justine Damond, 40, who was set to marry her fiance in August, was fatally shot by a police officer on Saturday, July 15. Few details have been revealed about the incident. Here's what we know. (Monica Akhtar/The Washington Post)

"But now, this Minneapolis cop has killed a beautiful, middle-class white lady they don't know how to vilify," Thompson said. "White people are outraged. And you know what? I say, 'Come on,' because we need their voices. We need their white power. We need their white privilege. . . . They will not be ignored, and nobody is going to try." 

Damond — who used her fiance's last name instead of her legal name, Ruszczyk — was a trained veterinary surgeon and yoga teacher, widely described as kind and cheery. In the airy screened porch of the brown brick house she shared with her fiance, Don Damond, a four-foot statue, a water feature and multicolored pillows mark it as a meditative space. Since her death, a video of her efforts to rescue ducklings from a storm sewer drain has been broadcast worldwide.  

In the moments before she was killed, Damond dialed 911 in an attempt to help a woman she feared was being raped in the alley behind her home. A search warrant filed in the case notes that an unidentified woman, which could have been Damond, slapped the back of the police cruiser seconds before Noor fired his gun, killing Damond.

Orange signs have appeared around town warning of "easily startled" police.

Robert Bennett, an attorney for the Damond family, drew the ire of many police reform advocates last month when he described Justine Damond as "the most innocent victim" he'd seen killed by police. The comment, he says, was a reference to the way Damond will be viewed by the general public and Minnesota's predominantly white juries.

"There just isn't anything [negative] that can be said about Justine," Bennett said.

Bennett, a stocky, energy-packed white man who wrestled for Notre Dame, has practiced law for more than 40 years. He represented Castile's relatives in a civil suit that resulted in a $3 million settlement with the city of St. Anthony, which employed the officer who shot Castile. An 11-pound pike that Bennett caught in 1984 hangs on his office wall, the sharp parts of its mouth, fins and tail harpooning nearly $10 million in checks paid after Bennett won settlements for clients maimed or killed by city workers and police officers around the Midwest.

"The usual dirty tricks and convenient rapid leaks from the department and the union about the victim just aren't possible here," Bennett said of Damond's case. "On the other hand, race has a lot to do with who does and does not have a criminal record in this country."

Back at the meeting of police reform groups, Jon and Jean Sutton are taking seats in the rear of the room. The Suttons, who are white, live two blocks from the Damonds' house, in the Fulton neighborhood in far Southwest Minneapolis.

This is the couple's first time at such a meeting, and they aren't sure what they are prepared to do beyond listen, learn and share their ideas. 

"I'm here to satisfy my curiosity," Jon Sutton said. "I'd like to understand what means exist to assure some accountability. I'd like to see the mayor and city council get involved." 

Minneapolis is home to nearly 414,000 people, most of them white, according to census estimates. About 19 percent of residents are black, and the share of the city that was foreign-born — 15.5 percent — topped the national average by a few points. Minneapolis is also home to the country's largest Somali American population.

Hodges, the mayor, acknowledges that she has been more frank about the need for policing reforms since the Damond shooting. But she says she learned some things during the protests and investigations that followed the fatal police shooting of Jamar Clark in 2015.

"In this situation, I am aware, of course, of the racial dynamics at play," she said. "I cannot avoid what I believe to be right because of who was involved and what questions that will prompt about my motivation and sincerity."

Last year, the Minneapolis Police Department started requiring officers to activate body cameras during most interactions with citizens. Three days before Damond's death, local station KSTP-TV reported that the average Minneapolis police officer had uploaded no more than 6.1 hours of footage each month.

Interim police chief Medaria Arradondo announced last week a stricter mandate that all officers must activate their body cameras when responding to any call, initiating a traffic stop or otherwise encountering the public. The head of the police union, Lt. Bob Kroll — who, until now, has been largely silent in the aftermath of the Damond shooting — described Arradondo's order as a "knee-jerk reaction."

Arradondo declined to comment for this report. In an email to The Washington Post, Kroll, president of the Minneapolis Police Officers Federation, said he has not commented on the Damond shooting because he doesn't want to create problems for Noor, who has not yet made a statement to investigators.

Kroll has been a particular concern for activists, who point to what they say are indicators of racial animus. A 2007 racial discrimination suit filed by Arradondo and four other black officers claimed that Kroll had made racist statements, and several excessive-force complaints against Kroll claim he used racial slurs while choking, hitting or arresting suspects. Those complaints were dismissed or found to be without merit. "I vehemently deny the false allegations," Kroll said.

Nekima Levy-Pounds, a black civil rights lawyer running against Hodges for mayor, said she has been heartened by the speed with which Damond's mostly white neighbors have connected her death with systemic policing problems. That may be all that stands between the city's police department making a scapegoat of Noor and actual police reforms, she said.

"Many people in this city have been living in the dark with regard to police violence," she said. "But the recognition this week that this is a human rights issue, not a black issue, that's powerful. That's sad and powerful."

"I don't think that anyone in this community was unaware that there are problems with policing in Minneapolis and many other parts of this country," said Richard Burbach, who is white, before meeting with neighbors in a home near where Damond was killed. "But this event, this tragic loss, was close."


Janell Ross covers race along with the social and political implications of the nation's rapidly changing demographics. Janell's Emerging America beat is part of the Washington Post's National Desk.

Post Recommends
Outbrain

You obviously love great journalism.

With special savings on our Basic Digital package, you’ll never miss a single story again.

Already a subscriber?

Secure & Encrypted