Finding the proper criminal statute to charge a suspect with can be complicated. There is often a fine line between treating a suspect with leniency or being overzealous. In the case of former Minneapolis police officer Mohamed Noor, who fatally shot Justine Ruszczyk Damond in July 2017, it seems the prosecution is opting to be overzealous.
In this era of political correctness, the overzealous prosecution of a black man, the first Somali to be sworn in as a Minneapolis police officer, seems incongruous. Then again, with the Minneapolis police having marred their reputation through a number of controversial shootings, the fierce prosecution of one that was clearly inappropriate makes more sense from a prosecutor’s perspective.
As only a retired flatfoot by profession, I have no expertise in law. My experience comes from sending criminal cases I investigated to the county attorney for consideration of charging. In the process of finding the proper charge I have darkened the pages of the Minnesota Criminal Code book on many occasions searching through the labyrinth of subdivisions for the proper charge to fit the crime.
It gets complicated, especially with white-collar crimes. But crimes of violence, including sex crimes and murder, can be complicated as well.
The county attorney has decided to up the ante on Noor by charging him with second-degree rather than third-degree murder because prosecutors believe his shot across his squad car, almost in the face of his partner and out the window, was intended to kill the victim.
When we consider intent in its most basic sense, we might suppose that if officer Noor pointed his gun at Damond and discharged it, he must certainly have intended to kill her. But that would be too simplistic. Before we enter into the murky waters of intent we may have to backtrack a bit.
That Noor’s training was fast-tracked is a critical factor some have debated as a cause in this incident. The seven-month fast-track crash course is designed to get mostly minority college grads through police training and on the street while paying for their training and offering them a salary during the training period.
For those who seek to change careers to law enforcement after working in some other field, the process can seem daunting. Once you have car payments, mortgages and children, it’s nearly impossible to go back to school and start training for a new profession. In the case of law enforcement, the traditional track requires two years of college plus 10 weeks of specific “Police Skills Training.”
Minneapolis has its own 16-week academy, and all police departments have a one-year probationary period during which recruits must prove their on-the-job fitness.
After receiving a job offer but before being officially hired and sworn in, officer candidates must pass a criminal history check, a background investigation and a psychological assessment. Failing any of these can make all the previous training meaningless.
So, when you see that young man or woman in fashionable sunglasses maneuvering their squad car through your neighborhood, know that he or she has put in a fair share of blood, sweat and tears to be in that position.
That Noor is Somali and became the pride of the Somali neighborhood goes without saying. It was a significant accomplishment for him to switch careers and complete the law enforcement training. The city, the police department and the Somali community rightfully celebrated his graduation.
But the question must be asked: Was this fast-track process detrimental in some way? Could the normal route have served Noor better and by extension safeguarded Ms. Damond?
Back to the charging of Noor and his intent in killing Damond. I don’t believe anyone, including the prosecutor, believes that officer Noor set out to kill the woman who called the police to report a possible sexual assault in progress in the alley behind her house. According to news accounts of the shooting, officer Noor had his handgun out of his holster as he and his partner entered the alley where the crime was reported to have occurred. Getting one’s handgun out of a security holster while seat-belted into a squad car can be a trick, so having one’s weapon at the ready is a practice police sometimes use when they believe they may have to respond quickly. Driving into a dark alley where a sexual assault may be occurring is one of those instances.
It has been reported that there was a loud noise, like something hitting the squad car, just before the shooting. We have all had some wiseguy bang on the roof of our car to freak us out, so we know how unsettling this can be.
So, you have an officer in the passenger seat of a squad car, hand on his unholstered gun, moving through a dark alley, most likely with headlights out, peering through the darkness for a sex-assault suspect — when something bangs into his squad and then there appears a darkened figure in the driver’s-side window. Most people would react in some way to this frightening stimulus — right?
Officer Noor shot the figure in the driver’s-side window, and it turned out to be the innocent 911 caller.
Here’s the million-dollar question: Was his reaction justified? While his reaction might be considered “normal” under the circumstances for Joe Blow, it was not appropriate for a police officer who is trained to always identify his target before discharging a weapon. If this is truly how this incident transpired, then officer Noor reacted improperly — for a police officer. He made a mistake that cost Damond her life.
Back to the amended charge of second-degree murder. This crime is described in the Minnesota criminal code as being, among other things, intentional. Intent is tricky in this case. Did officer Noor want to kill Damond? Of course not. Was officer Noor’s response to the noise and the figure in the window an instinctive reaction to a stimulus that caused him to fear for his life? If so, there is no crime since the action would be considered self-defense.
If his response is criminal, it leans more toward voluntary manslaughter-criminal negligence than second-degree murder where the intent was to kill the person in the window. It appears that in Noor’s mind, the person in the window was a threat, possibly the sex-assault suspect, but certainly not the 911 caller.
People always use the cliché of police officers having to make split-second, life-or-death decisions and how difficult that can be. It is indeed difficult, but police officers receive training in how to react to deadly force scenarios. It should be remembered, however, that police are not robots. They have emotions like everyone else. Fear of being killed is one of them. It happens to cops from time to time, and they know the possibility exists each time they report for duty.
Like most other humans, they are capable of making mistakes based on their humanity. Fortunately, most of our mistakes don’t result in the death of an innocent.
Richard Greelis, of Bloomington, is an author and retired police detective and teacher.