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Minneapolis police fatally shot Australian woman after hearing ‘loud sound,’ investigators say

Justine Damond, 40 was fatally shot by a Minneapolis police officer. Here's what you need to know. (Video: Monica Akhtar/The Washington Post)

Investigators probing the death of an Australian woman who was fatally shot by Minneapolis police officers over the weekend said Tuesday that the officers were “startled by a loud sound” near their patrol car right before the shooting.

The two officers were driving through an alley near the home of Justine Damond, 40, after she called 911 late Saturday to report a possible assault, according to the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA), the state agency investigating the shooting. The officer who was driving the patrol car told investigators that right after the loud noise, Damond approached the car on his side. The officer who was in the passenger seat then fatally shot Damond through the driver’s side window, according to investigators.

The information released Tuesday marked the first account from one of the officers about what happened at 11:30 p.m. on Saturday in the upscale Minneapolis neighborhood, and it came as relatives of Damond have sharply criticized law enforcement officials for not revealing more about the shooting.

What the Minneapolis police shooting tells us about the limits of body cameras

State investigators on Tuesday identified the officer who shot Damond as Mohamed Noor, who joined the department in 2015, and said the officer driving was Matthew Harrity, who joined the force last year. Both officers were placed on standard administrative leave after the shooting.

According to investigators, they spoke with Harrity on Tuesday and got his account of the shooting. Noor has declined to be interviewed by BCA agents, the bureau said in a statement, adding that Noor’s attorney did not say “when, if ever, an interview would be possible.” State officials said they could not compel Noor to speak with investigators.

Thomas C. Plunkett, an attorney representing Noor, did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday.

Harrity told investigators that Noor shot Damond through the open driver’s side car window. After the shooting, both officers got out of the car to give Damond medical attention, investigators said.

Authorities said no weapon was found at the scene of the shooting, but they found a cellphone near Damond.

Relatives say Damond had called 911 on Saturday night to report what she thought was a sexual assault near her home. Officials say Noor and Harrity responded to the call just before 11:30 p.m. What happened in Damond’s final moments has been shrouded in mystery for three days, but about 20 minutes after the 911 call, she was dead, killed by a single gunshot to her abdomen.

Investigators confirmed Tuesday that they have not found any video or audio that captured the shooting. Both officers were wearing body cameras, but the cameras were not turned on until after the shooting, investigators said, though they did not say why. The squad car camera also was not turned on, the BCA said.

A Minneapolis police spokesman declined to comment Tuesday about whether the officers were being investigated for potentially violating departmental policy regarding the body cameras. This policy requires officers to manually activate the devices before any use of force and, if that does not take place, the cameras must be “activated as soon as it is safe to do so.”

‘AMERICAN NIGHTMARE’: Australians react to fatal police shooting in ‘very risky’ United States

The shooting has drawn international attention and been decried as a nightmare in Damond’s home country of Australia. Her relatives have pleaded for any information about what happened before she was shot and killed, saying they were “desperate for information.”

“Our hearts are broken and we are utterly devastated by the loss of Justine,” Don Damond, her fiance, said Monday at a news briefing in Minneapolis. He said that understanding her last moments “would be a small comfort as we grieve this tragedy.”

After Noor was identified in multiple media reports as a Somali American police officer on the force, some in the Twin Cities’ Somali community began to worry about possible backlash.

“They fear this will be just another event used to create animosity toward the Somali community,” said Mohamud Noor, executive director at the Confederation of Somali Community in Minnesota. (The two men are not related.)

In a statement released Monday, the officer’s attorney said Noor, who came to the United States at a young age, “takes these events very seriously because, for him, being a police officer is a calling.”

“He joined the police force to serve the community and to protect the people he serves,” Plunkett said. “Officer Noor is a caring person with a family he loves and he empathizes with the loss others are experiencing. The current environment for police is difficult, but Officer Noor accepts this as part of his calling.”

Noor currently has had three complaints filed against him with the city’s Office of Police Conduct Review, two of which are still open. The other complaint did not result in any disciplinary action, and any records regarding complaints are not made public unless an officer is disciplined.

He is also the subject of a lawsuit filed one day before Damond’s death. In that case, a woman is accusing Noor and two other Minneapolis police officers of forcing their way into her house, violently detaining her and taking her to a hospital against her will. The woman had called 911 multiple times and, at some point, was ordered to be involuntarily taken to the hospital and to be placed on a mental health hold, according to the complaint. The lawsuit, which is seeking $50,000 in damages, was filed in Minnesota’s Fourth Judicial District Court on Friday.

Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges said she had asked state investigators to release information as quickly as possible in the case.

“We all want answers,” Hodges said during a briefing late Tuesday. “We all want to see justice done.”

Hodges said that even with the new details released Tuesday night, it was “frustrating to have some of the picture but not all of it,” adding that officials could not compel Noor to speak to state investigators.

“There are big questions left that we still have and that we hope to have answered soon,” Hodges said. “Why did Officer Noor draw and fire his gun? What happened from the time the officers arrived on the scene to when she was pronounced dead? Why don’t we have footage from body cameras? Why were they not activated? We all want answers to those questions.”

Janeé Harteau, the Minneapolis police chief, has called Damond’s shooting “a tragic death” and said she felt the same uncertainty reverberating through the community.

“I also want to assure you that I understand why so many people have so many questions at this point,” Harteau said in a statement Monday. “I have many of the same questions and that is why we immediately asked for an external and independent investigation into the officer-involved shooting death.”

The shooting has prompted far more questions than answers. Damond’s fiance said she was calling in “what she believed was an active sexual assault occurring nearby.”

According to the Minneapolis Police Department’s policies, video recording systems in police cars are activated by a “trigger event” — including the activation of the squad car lights — but otherwise have to be activated manually. Body cameras, meanwhile, must be manually activated “when safe to do so” during certain activities like traffic stops, suspicious stops, searches and any contact involving criminal activity as well as before uses of force.

Harrity told investigators that an unidentified young white man was biking in the area before the shooting and saw them both try to give medical aid to Damond, the BCA said. Agents are hoping to speak to him and anyone else who might have seen what happened.

On Monday evening, the Hennepin County Medical Examiner said Damond was killed by a gunshot wound to the abdomen. In a statement, the medical examiner’s office ruled her death a homicide and said she died Saturday at 11:51 p.m. in the alleyway. (The statement identified her as Justine Ruszczyk, though she had already begun using her fiance’s name.)

When the state investigation is complete, the findings will be given to the office of Hennepin County Attorney Michael O. Freeman for a review of whether any criminal charges should be filed.

“It doesn’t make any sense,” Damond’s stepson-to-be, Zach, said about the shooting. “I just want to have a conversation with that man.”

Zach Damond said that if he spoke to the officer, he would ask: “Why? Why did you do it?”

When he spoke to reporters Monday, Don Damond recalled his fiance as “so kind and so darn funny,” adding, “It is difficult to fathom how to go forward without her in my life.”

Damond’s death has reverberated in Australia, where her friends have demanded a federal investigation. Her father, John Ruszczyk, pleaded for “the light of justice” to “shine down on the circumstances of her death.” The Justice Department declined to comment about the case and calls for a federal probe.

The Washington Post’s database of fatal police shootings

Damond is one of at least 547 people fatally shot by police in the United States so far this year, according to a Washington Post database tracking such deaths. She is one of 24 women listed in The Post’s database this year.

This shooting is the third in recent years to draw intense national attention to the Twin Cities. Last year, a suburban police officer shot and killed Philando Castile, a local school worker, during a traffic stop that was partially streamed on Facebook. That footage went viral, sparking protests that lasted for weeks. The officer in that case, Jeronimo Yanez, was acquitted by a jury last month and then left his department. Dash-cam video in that case showed Yanez firing numerous times into Castile’s car but did not show what was happening inside the vehicle. Yanez has said he believed Castile was going for a weapon, an account Castile’s girlfriend, who was in the passenger seat, disputed.

In 2015, two Minneapolis police officers encountered and fatally shot Jamar Clark, a 24-year-old. His death also set off intense demonstrations outside a Minneapolis police station. The county prosecutor said the officers would not face charges because they believed Clark was going for their gun, while the Justice Department said they would not face federal civil rights charges because an investigation did not prove they intended to violate Clark’s civil rights.

Emily Sohn in Minneapolis and Kristine Phillips and Katie Mettler in Washington contributed to this report, which has been updated since it was first published Tuesday. 

Further reading:

Aren’t more white people than black people killed by police? Yes, but no.