Over the course of two days on the witness stand, ex-Minneapolis police officer Mohamed Noor repeatedly emphasized that his training prompted him to fire his service weapon at Justine Ruszczyk Damond after she suddenly appeared outside his squad car.
The jury didn’t buy it, and Noor now awaits a likely prison sentence.
Yet even before his conviction for third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter in Damond’s death, the closely watched murder trial had placed the police department’s policies under a microscope, raising questions about whether officers are too quick to use lethal force.
Under current Minneapolis Police Department policy, which mirrors state law, officers can use deadly force only to protect themselves or others from what they believe to be an immediate threat of death or critical bodily harm. They may also use lethal force to prevent the escape of a fleeing felon who they think poses a significant threat to police or others.
But even in those cases, force should be considered a last option, and whether the Noor verdict will bring about a further restriction to that standard is unclear.
In a statement Wednesday, assistant police chief Mike Kjos said that while he couldn’t comment on any policy changes after the Noor case, the department’s “policies, procedures and training are continually evolving and any incident can cause a revisit that potentially could lead to an update or alteration.”
“Threat assessment and use-of-force policies are routinely evaluated and examined to ensure they are in line with best practices,” Kjos said.
Both sides in the Noor trial agreed that he got the same firearms training as every other officer on the force. But during the monthlong trial, prosecutors sought to paint Noor as a trigger-happy officer who shot Damond without evaluating whether she posed a threat. The defense argued that the shooting was a justifiable, if tragic, act.
Continuously referring on the stand to the 40-year-old Damond as “the threat,” Noor testified that his decision to shoot was based on something ingrained in him from Day One at the police academy: Hesitate and you’re dead. However, two prosecution use-of-force experts with law enforcement experience testified that Noor violated department policy and national standards, with one of them calling the shooting an “unprovoked violent response.”
In Minneapolis, instances of police use of force have dropped in recent years, and officer shootings remain rare. Since 2008, 65 officers have shot 54 people in 47 separate encounters — nine of them fatal, according to department data. In that time, only two officers have been charged criminally, both of them black: Noor and Efrem Hamilton, who was acquitted last year of shooting into a carful of teenagers that he mistook for suspects in a shooting.
Steven Schleicher, a former federal prosecutor who is now a partner at Maslon LLP, isn’t so sure the Noor case will bring lasting changes to the city’s policies.
“I think it’s less about what happened here that will affect future cases — those cases will be judged on their own unique facts at the time,” he said.
‘Warrior’ to ‘guardian’
In recent years, Minneapolis has joined other police departments across the nation in adopting “guardian”-style policies that teach officers to exhaust all available alternatives before turning to force, modeled on recommendations from the Police Executive Research Forum, a national law enforcement think tank. A report by the same organization blamed a proliferation of illegal guns for the rise in “counterambush” training that Noor testified shaped him as an officer.
The Minneapolis Police Federation, the union representing the city’s roughly 900 sworn officers, has blocked efforts to impose tighter use-of-force regulations, arguing that limiting officers’ discretion could make them hesitant to act in situations where it’s warranted and lives could be saved.
When Mayor Jacob Frey announced in his State of the City address last month that officers could no longer participate in so-called “fear-based” training, it led to a public standoff with union president Lt. Bob Kroll. Since then, Kroll has offered free online training to any officer who wants it in open defiance of the mayor, with the two sides accusing each other of mischaracterizing an agreement between them.
Several dozen activists converged on the union’s northeast Minneapolis headquarters earlier this week in protest of an upcoming talk by Dave Grossman, a former Army Ranger and founder of the controversial “killology” program, which critics say trains officers to be “warriors” always on the defensive when patrolling the streets. In an e-mail to membership last week, a Federation board member encouraged officers to request a day off so they could attend Grossman’s “seminar on defending (others) in a valiant, wise, and safe methodology.”
Justin Terrell, executive director of the Council for Minnesotans of African Heritage, worries that training that promotes hyper-vigilance among officers can lead to more heavy-handed policing, especially toward African-Americans.
“That’s a pretty low threshold, especially when you factor in a racialized history of how often black and brown bodies are viewed from a fearful perspective,” Terrell said.
Despite mounting pressure to address “warrior-style” training, the Minnesota Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST) Board has largely left up to individual departments decisions on what continuing education officers are allowed to take, according to its director, Nate Gove.
“I think peace officers are able to make judgments and decisions, and I’m not seeing the connection with this case, which was determined to be the wrong decision criminally,” Gove said.
John Hollway, associate dean at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, said investigations of police violence are often focused on assigning individual blame — either to the officer or the person who was shot — without examining the broader conditions that led up to the moment, much like federal aviation officials do after a plane crash.
“And then you would look for ways to change the environment that brought these things together,” said Hollway, who also serves as executive director at Quattrone Center, a research and policy hub at the law school.
In 2016, Minneapolis adopted a new policy with wording that emphasized the “sanctity of life,” to address officer shootings that were legal but preventable.
The St. Paul Police Department also has altered its use-of-force policy in recent years, unveiling a new version last March that was criticized by some activists as not going far enough.
Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo, who could not be reached for comment, said earlier this year that shootings by officers — justified or not — undermine public trust more than any other act.
“The thing that probably has the most impactful meaning on individuals is force, and certainly deadly force,” he said, speaking at a February forum at the University of St. Thomas Law School. “And I needed our officers to understand that when they go out day and night to protect those they serve, the issue of force is very important, and they will be judged for that.”
Staff writer Chao Xiong contributed to this report.