The city of Minneapolis will pay the family of Justine Ruszczyk Damond a record $20 million to settle a lawsuit over her July 15, 2017, shooting death by a Minneapolis police officer.
Mayor Jacob Frey announced the agreement solemnly at a news conference Friday, flanked by City Council members, the city attorney and the police chief. The deal stipulates that the family will donate $2 million of its settlement to the Minneapolis Foundation’s Fund for Safe Communities, a program set up to fight gun violence in the city, Frey said.
“This is not a victory for anyone, but rather a way for our city to move forward,” said Frey. “And I do believe we will move forward together.”
The settlement will drain the city’s self-insurance fund, which the city previously projected to have $27.1 million by the end of the year. Over the next few months, the city will develop a plan to replenish its reserves, said Minneapolis Chief Financial Officer Mark Ruff.
The payout is more than quadruple the previous record for a police-related settlement in Minnesota. It dwarfs the compensation awarded to families of those who have become household names in the national movement for police accountability: Michael Brown, shot dead by an officer in Ferguson, Missouri; Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old with a toy gun who was killed by a Cleveland officer; and Philando Castile, whose dying moments were broadcast on Facebook after he was shot during a traffic stop in Falcon Heights in 2016.
Police accountability activists were quick to cite this fact as evidence of a racial double standard in the justice system, suggesting the outcome would have been different if the officer was not a black man and the victim not a young white woman.
“Race played a factor of every aspect of this trial all the way down to the settlement,” said John Thompson, an activist and friend of Castile. “That’s how everybody I’ve talked to feels.”
Asked if the racial or gender dynamic played a role in the decision, Frey said, “Every claim and every case brings forward a different set of circumstances.”
Bob Bennett, attorney for the Ruszczyk family, said Damond’s father would only agree to settle the case for a “transformational” settlement.
“This is an unmistakable message to change the Minneapolis Police Department in ways that will help all of its communities,” Bennett said.
Bennett, who has represented many of the most costly settlements in police-related lawsuits, said he did not believe that race played a factor in the outcome.
The Ruszczyk family filed their lawsuit in July 2018, asking for $50 million in compensation for the violation of Damond’s constitutional rights. The suit claimed officer Mohamed Noor and his partner conspired to cover up evidence by not turning on their body-worn cameras and later hiding behind a “blue wall of silence.” Noor was fired from the force and on Tuesday was convicted of third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter by a Hennepin County jury.
The next morning, city officials began two days of mediation with the Ruszczyk family over the lawsuit. Though none involved would discuss those negotiations, Bennett characterized the meetings as “protracted, long days.” They agreed on the dollar figure Thursday around 8 p.m., Bennett said.
“It was a struggle to arrive at, but people exhibited some compromise and some courage,” he said.
Friday morning, the City Council entered into a closed-door session to discuss the case, where they voted 12-0 to approve the settlement.
“This tragedy, as unfortunate as it was, happens far too often in our communities,” said City Council Vice President Andrea Jenkins at the news conference afterward. “Public safety and police trust must be our utmost concern going forward.”
Frey said the testimony and evidence produced at trial made clear that Noor did not face a threat before using force. This fact, combined with the unprecedented murder conviction, influenced the high settlement, the mayor said.
City Council Member Jeremiah Ellison said the donation to the Minneapolis Foundation was a priority for the city, and the charity will take direct input from other victims of police violence on how to use that money.
The money comes out of the city’s self-insurance fund, which is used in part to pay liabilities relating to police misconduct, workers’ compensation and other claims. Money for the fund comes from premiums charged to every municipal department.
The previous record settlement for police use of force came in 2007, when the city paid $4.5 million to Duy Ngo, a police officer shot by another officer who mistook him for a fleeing suspect. Minneapolis’ highest previous payout for a police killing was $3 million to the family of David Smith, who died after a struggle with officers at the YMCA in 2010.