The Minneapolis police officer who fatally shot an Australian woman last summer has been charged with murder and manslaughter in the shooting, which caused international outrage and forced out the city’s veteran police chief.
Justine Damond, 40, was fatally shot July 15 after summoning police to what she said was a possible rape near her home. Precisely what happened the night she was killed, however, has remained a mystery. There is no video footage of the shooting, even though both officers who responded were wearing body cameras at the time.
The charges against Noor were applauded by Damond’s fiance, Don Damond, and other members of Damond’s family. They called the charges in a joint statement “one step toward justice for this iniquitous act,” according to the Minneapolis Star-Tribune.
Noor, the officer who fired at Damond, declined to speak with investigators, who said they cannot compel him to be interviewed. He turned himself in Tuesday after a warrant was issued for his arrest and is being held in lieu of $500,000 bail, according to charging documents.
Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo said in a statement that Noor, who for eight months had been on paid administrative leave from the department, was fired Tuesday. He said he did not make a decision about Noor’s employment sooner, because he did not want to “interfere with the criminal investigation in this case.”
The charges against Noor mirror the findings of the initial police investigation in July — that Matthew Harrity, who was driving the squad car and did speak to investigators, was startled by a loud noise in the moments before Damond approached his side of the vehicle. Noor fired a single shot from the passenger seat, striking Damond through Harrity’s open window, according to authorities.
Both officers got out of the car to provide her with medical aid, authorities said, but she ultimately died of the wound.
“There is no evidence that . . . Officer Noor encountered, appreciated, investigated or confirmed a threat that justified the decision to use deadly force,” the charges said. “Instead, Officer Noor recklessly and intentionally fired his handgun from the passenger seat, a location at which he would have been less able than Officer Harrity to see and hear events on the other side of the squad car.”
Freeman on Tuesday said the charges would have come sooner had some of Noor’s fellow officers cooperated with investigators. Because of some officers’ unwillingness to cooperate, Freeman convened a grand jury.
He said that in his 18 years on the job, he had never encountered police officers who were not suspects who refused to “do their duty and come talk to us,” he said.
“The police patrol investigate and present us cases, we evaluate those cases and have to make the charging decision and do the prosecution,” Freeman said. “There’s going to be tension between those two roles but . . . we will not stop getting all the evidence even if we have to ruffle some feathers.”
But the president of the Minneapolis Police Officers Federation, which represents the department’s nearly 900 officers, said none of the officers were told by the union not to speak with investigators and some who were subpoenaed by the grand jury were confused, as they had “no involvement whatsoever with the incident.”
“No opinions were offered on what action to take with any of our members. For Mr. Freeman to say this, he is either lying or perpetuating a lie told to him,” Bob Kroll, the union’s president, said in a statement. “This is evidenced by the fact that nothing in the criminal complaint was discovered during grand jury testimony.”
Police records show that Damond had twice called 911 to contact officers about what she thought was a woman sounding “distressed.” In her first call, Damond told police that she could hear a woman either having sex or being raped but said it was difficult to hear for sure. In a second call, eight minutes later, Damond said no officers had arrived yet and she was worried that police may have gotten the address wrong.
Within two minutes of that second call, the two officers had arrived at the scene, and not long after, the shooting was reported.
Noor’s charging documents reveal additional details about the events of that night.
When Harrity and Noor arrived in the alley, their car’s headlights were off, and the computer screen was dimmed. The spotlight, however, was on so that the officers could look for people on the driver’s side of the car, the documents said. Harrity, who was not wearing a seat belt, removed his holster’s safety strap before turning the car into the alley. He heard what he thought may have been a dog before reaching the back of Damond’s home, the documents said, but didn’t get out of the car to look around.
The car slowed to 2 mph but never stopped behind Damond’s home. The officers did not see any people in the alley, according to the documents.
About two minutes after they arrived in the alley, Noor entered “Code 4” into the car’s computer, indicating that the officers had completed their investigation, were safe and did not need assistance. Harrity later said that before the shooting, the officers cleared the call and were waiting for a bicyclist to pass before responding to another call, according to the documents.
About 10 seconds later, Harrity heard a voice and a thump somewhere behind him on the car, “and caught a glimpse of a person’s head and shoulders outside his window.” He does not know what the noise was or how loud it was, or what the person sounded like or said. He called the noise a “muffled noise or a whisper,” according to the documents.
He said he thought the person was about two feet away, but couldn’t see their hands or whether they had weapons. According to the charges:
“Officer Harrity said he was startled and said ‘Oh s—’ or ‘Oh Jesus.’ He said he perceived that his life was in danger, reached for his gun, unholstered it, and held it to his rib cage while pointing it downward. He said from the driver’s seat he had a better vantage point to determine a threat than Officer Noor would have had from the passenger seat.Officer Harrity then heard a sound that sounded like a lightbulb dropping on the floor and saw a flash. After first checking to see if he had been shot, he looked to his right and saw Officer Noor with his right arm extended in the direction of Officer Harrity.”
Harrity said he didn’t see Noor’s gun, but that when he looked out his window on his left, he saw Damond, according to the documents.
“The woman put her hands on a gunshot wound on the left side of her abdomen and said, ‘I’m dying’ or ‘I’m dead,’ ” the charges said.
Once he saw Damond’s hands, Harrity determined that she wasn’t a threat and got out of the car. Noor got out of the car and was still armed. Harrity told him to reholster his weapon and turn on his body camera, the documents said.
After Noor was identified as a Somali American police officer on the force, some in the region’s Somali community expressed concerns about a backlash. Shortly before Christmas, a small memorial to Damond appeared outside a Minneapolis police precinct’s headquarters, and a white nationalist group claimed it had put that together and referred to Noor’s Somali background.
Noor came to the United States when he was young and took the shooting “very seriously because, for him, being a police officer is a calling,” Plunkett, his attorney, said this year. Noor joined the Minneapolis police force in 2015.
Plunkett said in a recent statement that Damond was “a very fine person” and called her death “a horrible tragedy, but not a crime.”
On Tuesday, Plunkett said “the facts will show that Officer Noor acted as he has been trained and consistent with established departmental policy.”
“Officer Noor should not have been charged with any crime,” he said.
Damond had moved from Australia to Minneapolis and had taken on the last name of Don Damond, her fiance, before their wedding. Don Damond has pleaded for information about her final moments, saying it “would be a small comfort as we grieve this tragedy.” The shooting was widely covered in Australia, where family members and news outlets described it as a nightmare.
Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges decried Damond’s death and described it as avoidable. She also questioned why no body-camera footage existed despite every patrol officer in the city being equipped with such a device.
Hodges, who last month lost her reelection bid, had ousted Minneapolis police chief Janeé Harteau in July, saying she had “lost confidence in the chief’s ability to lead us further.” Authorities in Minneapolis also changed their body-camera policies for police, mandating they must be activated for more calls for service and other work.
Damond was one of at least 971 people fatally shot by a U.S. police officer in 2017, according to a Washington Post database.
Charges against officers for on-duty shootings are rare, and convictions are even less common. During one week in June, three officers who stood trial after being charged in high-profile shootings captured on video were not convicted. Two were acquitted, including one officer from the Twin Cities area, and a mistrial was declared in a third case.
The Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension investigated Damond’s shooting and gave its findings to Freeman’s office in September. Once that happened, Freeman and prosecutors in his office said they were going to “carefully review the case file to determine what, if any, charges might be brought.”
Freeman spoke critically of the state investigators in remarks this month that were recorded and posted online, saying he did not have the evidence to charge Noor and blaming investigators who he said “haven’t done their job.” He later apologized for his comments.
Officials in Minneapolis have said they were bracing for a public backlash to Freeman’s announcement regardless of what he decided. Recent fatal shootings by police in the Twin Cities region — including the November 2015 shooting of Jamar Clark in Minneapolis and the July 2016 shooting of Philando Castile in a nearby suburb — had prompted intense, extended protests.
After Clark was killed, Freeman said officers involved would not face criminal charges because the shooting was justified, while the Justice Department said the officers would not face federal civil rights charges.
Castile’s shooting, meanwhile, resulted in a manslaughter charge and other felony charges against Jeronimo Yanez, the officer who shot Castile during a traffic stop in Falcon Heights, a suburb near Minneapolis and St. Paul. Yanez was ultimately acquitted after a trial last summer.
That fatal encounter was among the most high-profile police shootings in recent years because Castile’s girlfriend, sitting in the passenger seat next to him, began streaming the aftermath on Facebook Live, and the footage quickly went viral.
Yanez said later that he feared for his life and thought Castile was reaching for a gun in the car, a claim Castile’s girlfriend disputed. In June 2017, a month before Damond was shot, Yanez was acquitted on all charges by a jury. He formally left his department not long after, an announcement the city of St. Anthony made days before Damond’s death again pulled attention to a fatal police shooting in the region.