Now well into its third week, the trial of former police officer Mohamed Noor has put the Minneapolis Police Department’s “blue wall of silence” in the forefront, along with issues of transparency and inconsistencies amongst its officers.
Noor, a Black Somali immigrant, is facing second-degree murder and manslaughter charges for fatally shooting Justine Ruszczyk Damond on July 15 after he and his partner, Matthew Harrity, responded to a 911 call about a possible sexual assault. According to police reports, Noor shot Damond while sitting in the passenger seat of his squad car as she approached the driver’s side.
He is only the second police officer in recent memory to be charged in Minnesota for killing someone in the course of duty, which many in the community have attributed to his skin color and religion.
“They can ‘look good’ by going after a cop without actually doing so,” commented Michelle Gross of Communities United Against Police Brutality on Facebook. “No part of this is about actually disrupting the system they are all a part of.”
Wall of silence
Multiple police officers have testified that, after arriving on the scene of the shooting, they advised Noor to not incriminate himself. Some even turned off their cameras, thus effectively enacting the department’s infamous “blue wall of silence.”
Officer Jesse Lopez testified in court that he told Noor, “Hang on. We gotta shut [the recording device] off. Just keep to yourself. Keep your mouth shut until you have to say anything to anybody.”
Officer Mark Ringgenberg, who shot and killed unarmed Jamar Clark in 2015, also advised Noor to keep quiet. Ringgenberg testified, “I just told [Noor] not to say anything.”
Noor has, up to this point, taken their advice to the extreme. He has refused to speak to the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA) or prosecutors about the events of that night.
Framing the narrative
Noor’s defense attorneys have set the narrative that Damond startled Harrity and Noor after hearing a thump or “a loud slap against the car,” which they perceived as a possible threat.
Though Harrity reintroduced this assertion during his testimony, saying under oath that he heard a “thump” and a “murmur,” the prosecution team pointed out there neither Harrity or Noor had mentioned any “thump” immediately after the shooting.
A few officers testified that it was Sgt. Shannon Barnette who first introduced the idea that the officers heard a thump. According to other testimony, Barnette — who was Noor’s and Harrity’s precinct supervisor at the time — also introduced the idea that Damond was likely “a drunk or drug addict.” This led officers to search the victim’s house after the shooting.
An expert contradicted their claims, testifying that Damond’s fingerprints were not found anywhere on the car. However, another officer testified that Sgt. Shannon Barnette had instructed him to wash and clean Noor’s squad car after the shooting.
The car was delivered to the BCA after it had been cleaned the next day. It was then returned to service before the BCA again impounded the car for evidence, including fingerprint and gunpowder analysis. If the car had been cleaned and washed, the likelihood of obtaining either would be nil.
The prosecution team seemed to be hindered by inconsistencies in police testimony and, in some cases, an apparent attempt at obfuscation.
For example, Lt. Dan May, who made headlines in 1990 for the shooting death of Tycel Nelson, initially told the court that the cops were on heightened alert for an ambush. However, May did not include this threat in his report on Damond’s killing.
Harrity also claimed that he feared ambush and described as “dark” the alley they were in the night of the shooting. Yet, according to neighbors, the alley where the shooting took place in Southwest Minneapolis’ Fulton neighborhood was well lit.
Harrity testified that he sees everyone and every situation as a threat to him “until it isn’t a threat anymore. It’s kind of a scary way of thinking. It’s a safety measure. I just want to be ready.” He later acknowledged that is how he thought of Damond until after she was shot, when he saw her hands and realized that she wasn’t a threat.
May also later admitted in court that no warnings about possible ambushes had been made earlier on the date of the killing, and that no warnings had been posted on Noor’s 5th Precinct bulletin board.
Even the use of force was questionable. When the prosecution team asked if shooting Damon would have been the appropriate response had she hit the car, Harrity testified on the stand that “use of deadly force at that point would’ve been premature.”
Given such deferences to the police as having Harrity interviewed at the home of his defense attorney, both prosecution and community members have been led to question the entire judicial process. The BCA’s standard protocol is to interview witnesses in their offices.
“How do [the Hennepin County prosecutors question] the police procedure and routine of lying and fabricating stories to avoid prosecution and continue to claim confidence in the cases [in which] they relied on that same routine of lying and fabrication to achieve a conviction?” asked artist and community organizer D.A. Bullock on Facebook. “How do they avoid not going back through every so-called justified police shooting and asking the EXACT same questions?”
As of press time, Noor’s defense team was set to present its arguments, with speculation that the trial would close by end of the week.
Update 4/25/2019 to correctly identify Communities United Against Police Brutality.