To some, the question loomed large as a former Minneapolis police officer was charged in the killing of an unarmed woman: Would the charges — the first in a case involving a fatal shooting by police in recent Hennepin County history — have come if the officer hadn’t been black and Somali-American and the victim hadn’t been white?
An intense debate over the shooting’s uncommon racial dynamic has played out among police reform activists, in the city’s Somali malls and among the police department’s own officers. Even some passionate proponents of police accountability balked at celebrating the murder and manslaughter charges against Officer Mohamed Noor, saying they reflected the justice system’s racial bias as much as previous local decisions not to charge cops who kill in the line of duty. Some Somali-Americans worried their community, rather than the use of deadly force by an officer, will end up on trial.
But others said the charges are a clear win in the push for more scrutiny of police use of force and possibly the beginning of a tougher approach to law enforcement accountability. Noor shot Justine Ruszczyk Damond, a 40-year-old Australian spiritual healer and meditation coach, minutes after she called police to report a suspected sexual assault in her southwest Minneapolis neighborhood.
“There have been numerous shootings that the community felt were unjustified and this one with Ms. Damond is one of them,” said Nathaniel Khaliq, past president of the St. Paul NAACP. “I hope it lowers the threshold for officers to be charged in deadly shootings.”
Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman announced the charges Tuesday, more than eight months after Damond’s killing and nearly two years to the day after he declined to charge two white officers in the fatal shooting of an unarmed black man, Jamar Clark. Damond’s family welcomed the charges, calling them “one step toward justice for this iniquitous act.”
Criticism of the charges
On the question of the Noor charges at Remix Barber and Beauty shop in Minneapolis Friday morning, the predominantly black clientele was in near-agreement: After years of pressure for more accountability in fatal officer shootings, a black cop had been made the fall guy. Customers and co-owner Chanda Tolbert said the charges came as no surprise given the races of the officer and the woman who was shot.
“Race has everything to do with it,” customer Teena Hill said. “It’s not a justice system for us.”
Reaction at nearby Jones and Jones Barber Shop, only a block from the site of Clark’s shooting in 2015, echoed that sentiment. “If it was a white police officer shooting a black man, he wouldn’t have been charged,” said Rob Hannah as he waited to get a haircut. “The system fails us a lot.”
Added owner A.J. Turner, “The Somali community needs to be in an uproar. I would be.”
Talk about race and perceived racial bias has lit up Somali community members’ social media accounts, animated coffee shop conversations and brought a couple of emotional impromptu community meetings in the days following the charges. Some have questioned whether Noor was treated differently from other cops who have killed in the line of duty, alleging a rush to judgment absent after other police shootings.
“A lot of the community is saying that if it’s Michael or David, he’s not going to be guilty today,” said Mahamed Cali, who runs KALY 101.7 FM, a Somali-American radio station.
After months of silence, the Somali American Police Association (SAPA) last week criticized the charges, suggesting Freeman had bowed to political pressure ahead of his re-election bid later this year. In an interview, Waheid Siraach, acting spokesman for SAPA, said the case raises legitimate questions about racial bias.
He pointed to former Police Chief Janeé Harteau’s news conference several days after the shooting in which she condemned Noor’s actions before an investigation had been completed. He also noted a cellphone video of Freeman criticizing the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension for its handling of the case and telling activists in a taped conversation that to make a charging decision would be “the big present I’d like to see under the Christmas tree.”
“The aggressiveness, the ruthlessness with which Freeman went after this case, and personally Noor, it’s completely different from how they went after other cases,” Siraach said.
Privately, some Somali-American officers complained they were called in to testify before the grand jury simply because of their ethnicity. They spoke about several racially charged incidents in the department in the aftermath of Damond’s shooting, including disparaging comments about Somalis made by a white sergeant on Facebook, which were investigated last month.
Officers and community activists such as Omar Jamal also criticized Noor’s Tuesday firing, which they said sends a strong message to potential jurors. Meanwhile, the Minneapolis Police Federation, usually an outspoken advocate of officers accused of wrongdoing, remained largely silent about the Noor matter for months.
Some in the Somali community worry about a broader backlash, noting feverish speculation in some corners of the internet and elsewhere that Noor’s religion and ethnicity motivated the shooting. Former Republican U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann called Noor an “affirmative-action hire by the hijab-wearing mayor of Minneapolis, Betsy Hodges,” and insinuated that Noor may have shot Damond for “cultural” reasons.
Others decried the case as a possible setback in law enforcement efforts to engage with the East African community and recruit officers from its ranks, an initiative that has received international recognition.
“A lot of young people wanted to be a police officer, but they’re rethinking it now,” said Cali, citing his own son as an example. “A lot of young people are saying, ‘Oh, I don’t want to be [the next] Mohamed.’ ”
Some prominent black police reform advocates are speaking out in Noor’s defense. Ron Edwards, a longtime civil rights activist in Minneapolis, noted that 11 days before Damond was shot, on-duty New York City police officer Miosotis Familia was shot and killed as she sat in an RV police command vehicle in the Bronx. During roll calls across the country, Edwards said, officers were told to be on the lookout for situations in which they could be ambushed, to “have their weapons prepared.”
“In those tragic few seconds, officers were following their orders,” he said, adding, “Justice was not served, but I wasn’t surprised.”
Support for the charges
But the response to the charges in Twin Cities communities of color is far from uniform. For some, the bottom line is that a police officer is being held accountable in the death of an unarmed civilian. They feel the case has helped broaden the call for police and criminal justice reform — and could serve as a rallying cry for a community still reeling from the 2016 shooting death of St. Paul school cafeteria worker Philando Castile by St. Anthony police officer Jeronimo Yanez. Yanez was acquitted last year on manslaughter charges.
Farhio Khalif, a Somali-American women’s advocate, said she welcomed the charges against Noor as a chance to get to the bottom of what happened the night Damond was killed.
“My solidarity is with the Damond family. Justine has to be given her justice,” she said.
Khalif says that to her, Noor was simply a Minneapolis officer who shot an unarmed woman, and she voiced disappointment that much has been made in the public discourse of his Somali-American background. She said she trusts that the justice system will handle the case without regard to Noor’s race and background.
Some black community advocates also said they are heartened by the charges.
“Just because racist white folks do terrible things to black folks, we don’t have to act like them,” said Mel Reeves, one of the leaders of an unsuccessful campaign pushing Freeman to indict two officers in the Clark shooting. “I don’t support wrong. Clearly, if officer Noor shot Justine Damond, he should be punished.”
All eyes now turn to Noor’s upcoming prosecution. The proliferation of video and other factors have increased pressure on prosecutors around the country to not only charge but convict officers involved in controversial shootings, according to Justin Nix, who has studied police use of force at the University of Nebraska Omaha’s School of Criminology and Criminal Justice. Yet, convictions remain uncommon.
Much remains unknown in the Damond case, which was not captured on video because the officers’ body cameras were turned off at the critical moment. Still, Nix said there appeared to be enough evidence to support charges, regardless of the victim and officer’s race.
“If you separate race from that and you just look at those facts, this is one of those very questionable cases in which charges might be pursued,” he said.
Staff writer Andy Mannix contributed to this report.