The fear of being ambushed on the job was fresh in officers’ minds before the fatal shooting of Justine Ruszczyk Damond, a Minneapolis police lieutenant testified Friday.
Defense attorneys representing former Minneapolis police officer Mohamed Noor argue that he legally shot Damond in 2017 because he feared he was being set up for an attack in a south Minneapolis alley.
On Friday, they cross-examined one of Noor’s supervisors at the time, crafting a picture of a department that was on high alert for threats due to attacks on police across the country.
Lt. Daniel May, who was then the supervisor in charge of the Fifth Precinct midwatch shift, told the court that ambushes on police were a “frequent” topic of conversation at roll call, the start of a shift where officers are debriefed on relevant issues.
May’s turn on the witness stand proved to be fertile ground for the defense, who painted favorable pictures of Noor and his partner, Matthew Harrity, through May’s evaluation of their work.
Prosecutors have said Noor acted unreasonably and in haste when he fired at Damond from inside his squad car.
Assistant Hennepin County Attorney Patrick Lofton attempted to dismantle the defense’s strategy by pointing out that May’s stance on officers’ fear of ambush surfaced long after the shooting.
May cited the 2016 ambush in Dallas that killed five officers and wounded nine others, and a July 5, 2017 fatal shooting of a New York City officer as cases that had impacted the precinct’s thinking about officer safety.
He also referenced a 2016 mandate issued by Minneapolis police leaders ordering officers to work in pairs after six Baton Rouge, La. police officers were shot, three of them fatally.
May testified that superiors addressed the issue with officers at roll call.
He also spoke with officers about the 1992 killing of Minneapolis officer Jerry Haaf “to hammer home that it’s already happened here and it could happen again.”
May said he went so far as to encourage officers under his watch to take their breaks and eat their meals at the precinct office instead of out in the field.
Haaf was on break at the Pizza Shack in south Minneapolis when he was shot in the back.
Lofton asked May whether he mentioned the fear of a possible ambush in a report he wrote about Damond’s killing, whether there had been discussions earlier that day about being ambushed and whether any warnings about such incidents were posted on a precinct bulletin board.
No, May answered each time.
Noor shot Damond from inside his squad car on July 15, 2017, while he and Harrity were responding to her call about a possible sexual assault in the alley behind her south Minneapolis home.
May responded to the scene and spoke with Noor, telling the court that, “It looked almost as if [Noor] was in a state of shock.”
Under questioning by Lofton, May acknowledged that in two meetings with prosecutors he didn’t mention officers’ fear of ambush, and that he brought it up with the defense long after the shooting.
Lofton asked if May, who had completed counter-ambush training about a year before the shooting, was taught that someone ambushing police would warn them by first tapping on their squad.
The defense has said a loud bang on their squad caused Noor and Harrity to fear for their lives and prompted Noor to fire his gun at a figure raising a right arm at Harrity’s open driver’s side window.
No, May said.
“You should probably see their hands before you determine whether they’re a threat?” Lofton asked.
May said, yes, that was usually the case.
Defense attorney Peter Wold tried to counter the prosecution’s attempt to undermine May’s credibility by pointing out through questioning that prosecutors did not ask May about ambushes on police in pretrial interviews, while the defense did.
Lofton asked if May believed that Noor feared he was being ambushed the night he killed Damond.
“I can’t tell you what was in his mind,” May said.
Earlier in the day, May told Wold in cross-examination that he approved Noor and Harrity to work in a precinct-wide car that few others have access to. May said he had previously discontinued the squad car because it was not being used appropriately.
The car can respond to calls across the precinct while others are generally restricted to three specific zones.
But, he testified, he reinstated it when a shift manager asked him to revive it. May said he told the manager he would only use the squad for “the right officers.”
He described officers assigned to the precinct-wide car as “productive, hardworking” officers who were expected to respond to several calls.
The shift manager suggested Noor, Harrity and a third officer, May testified.
Wold asked May why he also approved Noor and Harrity to carry a high-powered rifle, which is in limited supply at Minneapolis Police Department. May testified that he trusted their judgment.
“You want officers who are going to respond and get [to calls] quickly,” May said. “Obviously you’re not going to arm just anybody with that type of weapon.”
Harrity is expected to testify next week. Lofton said prosecutors did not have a chance to prepare Harrity for testimony about driving down the alley before the shooting, as he declined.
“He’s elected not to do that; that’s his right,” Lofton said.