The state agency that investigates officer-involved shootings across Minnesota is facing intense new scrutiny for alleged missteps in its investigation into the killing of Justine Ruszczyk Damond, calling its reputation into question as critics ranging from activists to the governor demand answers.
The Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension’s handling of previous cases and activists’ concerns highlight longstanding issues that went publicly unrecognized until former Minneapolis police officer Mohamed Noor was convicted last week of third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter in Damond’s death.
“I have concerns about the work of the BCA in every case they touch,” said Kimberly Handy-Jones, whose son, Cordale Handy, was killed by St. Paul police in 2017. “Between leading questions in interviews with the officers, mishandling evidence … these so-called investigations are consistently designed to clear police officers who kill members of the community.”
Several law enforcement officials reached for comment had few answers about how to build public trust in such investigations and in the BCA’s operations.
Minnesota Department of Public Safety Commissioner John Harrington, who has broad oversight of the BCA, said he’s been talking since January, when he was appointed to the job by Gov. Tim Walz, with a coalition of partners about overhauling officer-involved shooting investigations. But, he said, the conversations about creating “best practices” are early and have not yet yielded concrete ideas.
“I really want to get a better sense of where we are in comparison with other agencies, and what other departments are doing nationally … so we can make sure that we are doing a better job,” Harrington said. “I don’t know that there is a different model there, but that’s part of what we’re trying to learn.”
Harrington said his office plans to hold community meetings on the issue, but he did not have a clear timeline for when that would begin.
BCA Superintendent Drew Evans declined to be interviewed for this article but issued a statement: “The BCA values the strong and professional relationships we have built with our local partners and county attorneys. We work closely with prosecutors to gather all the facts and evidence in order to provide a complete picture of what occurred in each case and to ensure justice is served.”
BCA agents spent about 2,000 hours on the Noor case and produced more than 260 reports in their investigation, working closely with Freeman’s office, he said.
“While tensions can occur between investigators and prosecutors in any criminal investigation,” Evans’ statement said, “we work through them to fully examine the facts in a case.”
Hennepin County prosecutors called out BCA agents at Noor’s monthlong trial for many of the same concerns voiced by Handy-Jones and other families who have lost loved ones in police shootings. Prosecutors repeatedly implied that the agency treated police with greater deference than civilians.
Assistant Hennepin County Attorneys Amy Sweasy and Patrick Lofton openly criticized the integrity of the BCA’s work early in the Noor investigation: Agents failed to follow up more thoroughly with a neighbor who contacted them, the agency returned Noor’s squad car to police twice instead of maintaining it in their custody, and crime scene scientists did not test the car for gunshot residue until prosecutors requested it.
They also accused BCA assistant special agent in charge Chris Olson of asking Noor’s supervisor a leading question that crafted the story that Noor and his partner, Matthew Harrity, were spooked by a slap on their squad car before Noor fired his gun. The slap was integral to the defense’s case; prosecutors denied that it ever occurred.
Even as he celebrated his office’s win in a case that drew worldwide attention, Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman acknowledged last week that his office had to take the initiative to rectify some issues with the BCA’s work.
“Initially there were mistakes both by the Minneapolis police and the BCA,” he said at a news conference following the verdict. “We hope the problems that we’ve had in the past are over, and they continue to do the good job they’ve done recently.”
Freeman declined to be interviewed about the fallout from the trial, citing Noor’s pending June 7 sentencing.
In the wake of the trial, Ramsey County Attorney John Choi revealed that the BCA was unable to recover a key piece of evidence in the 2016 fatal shooting of Philando Castile.
The BCA said it did not have the “expertise” or technology to clean and recover squad camera audio, which was half-obscured by background noise, Choi recalled.
The FBI intervened and recovered the full audio of Castile’s conversation with then-officer Jeronimo Yanez, which was critical to charging Yanez in the shooting, Choi said.
“And it was at that point,” he said, “after understanding that entire context, that it became pretty clear to me that Philando Castile was doing everything in his power to de-escalate the situation and, somehow, former officer Yanez went and rapidly escalated his response.”
Yanez was ultimately acquitted at trial. The BCA also initially resisted Choi’s request to pull records for Yanez’s phone use following the shooting.
“Why wouldn’t we want to get his cellphone records?” Choi said. “And the [BCA] response might be, ‘Well, isn’t that like a fishing expedition?’ No, it’s not fishing.”
“At the end of the day [the BCA] did it, but you had that conversation.”
The issues don’t surprise activists. They say the black community and other critics have raised concerns about BCA investigations for years but were not taken seriously. Walz said last week that his office will review the BCA’s investigation into Damond’s shooting. His office had no updates Friday on that progress.
The sudden attention to those issues as they relate to Noor’s case is frustrating, activists said. Some believe race is a factor. Damond was a white woman from Australia while Noor is Somali-American.
“We’ve been talking about the disparity in the treatment of people of color,” said Monique Cullars-Doty, the aunt of Marcus Golden, who was killed by St. Paul police in 2015. “The fact that [Walz] even had an interest in missteps is a slap in the face to everyone that has been killed.”
Freeman has said all other BCA police shooting investigations have been “superb,” and Choi also defended the quality of cases his office has reviewed. But some families say their experiences track with the problems exposed in the Noor trial.
Early last year, Choi’s office cleared four Ramsey County sheriff’s deputies in the fatal shooting of Darren Jahnke only to reopen the investigation in September. The BCA had failed to review an audio recording Jahnke made on his cellphone of the April 2017 incident.
Although authorities said the recording corroborated the deputies’ story and supported no criminal charges, Jahnke’s sister, Jenny Vance, said her family could have come to terms with his death earlier were they aware of the contents of his recording.
“To have it show up almost a year and a half later, that was shocking,” Vance said of the recording. “It just makes you wonder what other cases are missing evidence that can give families peace.”
Vance urged anyone in her position to maintain communication with the BCA throughout an investigation.
“They have to know that you’re there,” she said. “They have to know that you’re paying attention to what they’re doing.”