Gov. Mark Dayton on Friday offered a strident defense of the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension’s probes of officer-involved shootings across the state after Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman was caught on video saying investigators “haven’t done their job” investigating the death of Justine Ruszczyk Damond.
Dayton praised the statewide investigative agency for its diligence, saying such criticism is “destructive.”
“The BCA is asked to investigate some of the toughest, most complex cases involving officer-involved shootings,” he said in a statement. “I have the utmost confidence in their professionalism, integrity, and thoroughness. Impugning the quality of their investigations is destructive, and detrimental in our efforts to seek and obtain justice.”
The governor’s comments come after Freeman told a group of activists at a union event Wednesday that he hasn’t yet decided whether to charge Minneapolis police officer Mohamed Noor for shooting and killing Damond on July 15. Freeman cited the lack of evidence. “I’ve got to have the evidence, and I don’t have it yet,” he said. “And let me just say, it’s not my fault. So if it isn’t my fault, who didn’t do their jobs? It’s called investigators, and they don’t work for me. And they haven’t done their job.”
Freeman did not respond to a request for comment Friday.
Before Wednesday’s video, Freeman had not commented publicly on the investigation, which was turned over to his office Sept. 12.
He has said his goal was to make a decision on whether to charge Noor by the end of the year. Damond, a native of Australia, was shot and killed after she called 911 to report a possible sexual assault behind her southwest Minneapolis home. When the police arrived, Noor fired from the squad car’s passenger seat, striking Damond as she approached the driver’s side window, according to information previously released by the BCA.
Noor has declined to speak with investigators. Freeman said in the video that Noor’s partner, Matthew Harrity, “just gave us [expletive].”
Bob Bennett, the attorney who represents the Damond family, said Freeman’s statements are the latest evidence that the BCA should no longer investigate the case.
Bennett, who estimates that he’s won $40 million to $50 million for clients in police misconduct cases, said he’s learned in examining those cases that the BCA’s mindset is to accept an officer’s version of an event and not challenge it with potential contradictory evidence.
“With the mindset that they have, they’ll never do a good investigation,” he said. “They’ll never find an officer wrong, no matter what he does.”
Bennett points to a deposition he took of a BCA agent in April 2015, during which the gent said it’s only the perception of an officer involved in a shooting that matters, and not other evidence. The agent also appears to acknowledge that the BCA handles officer-involved shooting cases differently from civilian cases.
“It doesn’t matter what’s on the video,” BCA agent Gary Swanson told Bennett during the deposition, a copy of which Bennett provided to the Star Tribune. “What matters is what the officer perceives.”
“So basically you take these officers’ statements about what they perceive as face value?” Bennett asked.
“Yes,” Swanson answered.
“Is that how you treat civilian suspects?” Bennett asked.
“This — we’re — it’s — this is a totally different deal,” Swanson replied.
The BCA said in a statement Friday that the agency “investigates the majority of officer involved shooting incidents in Minnesota because of our thorough and professional approach to ensuring the integrity of an investigation. BCA agents and scientists do extensive work to gather all the facts and evidence in order to conduct comprehensive investigations that are then presented to county attorneys for review of possible charges.”
BCA spokesman Bruce Gordon also said that how investigations are handled it done on a case-by-case basis.
Freeman’s comments are unlikely to have any impact on the case in the event that Noor is charged, defense attorneys said. “Mike would have been better off saying nothing from a public relations standpoint, but it won’t impact the case at all,” said Minneapolis attorney Joe Friedberg.
Bloomington attorney Marsh Halberg said the video could be used by the defense to argue that Freeman was meddling in the investigation, but he doubted that it would ever be shown in a courtroom.
“The case is about what happened for five seconds in an alley,” Halberg said.
The Star Tribune has found that since 2000, 163 people have died in forceful encounters with law enforcement in Minnesota. The BCA investigated at least 83 shootings, and nearly all of the probes came to the same conclusion: The use of deadly force was justified.
Only one officer was charged. That officer, Jeronimo Yanez, was acquitted after he shot and killed Philando Castile following a traffic stop in July 2016. The agency came under fire after the trial when records showed the BCA obtained several search warrants to deeply examine Castile’s background along with that of his girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, but did not put the same focus on Yanez.
After two Minneapolis officers shot and killed Jamar Clark in November 2015, the Minneapolis chapter of the NAACP examined the BCA’s file and found that agents failed to challenge the two officers involved with evidence that appeared to contradict their statements.
“They’re working to defend the police,” said Jason Sole, head of the Minneapolis NAACP. He believes the BCA shouldn’t handle shootings by officers. “When they come to a scene, they’re trying to prove nothing was wrong.”