The death of Justine Damond, who called 911 to report a possible crime only to be killed by a responding Minneapolis police officer, has left her grieving family, neighborhood and nation demanding answers in the latest police-involved shooting to thrust Minnesota into the international spotlight.
While many of the details about what happened Saturday night in the city’s southwest corner have not been disclosed, this much was: She called to report a possible assault in the alley behind her house in one of the city’s safest neighborhoods and was unarmed when officer Mohamed Noor shot her.
Amid a public outpouring of grief and outrage, Chief Janeé Harteau issued her first comments on the shooting, saying she too wanted an explanation, and called on the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension to perform a speedy investigation.
The Hennepin County medical examiner said Monday evening that Damond, also known as Justine Ruszczyk, died from a gunshot wound to the abdomen.
Noor, a second-year officer whose identity became public Monday, has retained a lawyer. Attorney Thomas Plunkett said in a statement that Noor “takes these events very seriously.”
“He joined the police force to serve the community and to protect the people he serves,” Plunkett said. “Officer Noor is a caring person with a family he loves, and he empathizes with the loss others are experiencing.”
Sources identified Noor’s partner on the scene, who did not fire any shots, as officer Matthew Harrity, 25, who earned his peace officer’s license last year. A spokeswoman for the BCA confirmed there was no weapon found at the scene, creating even more mystery about how Damond’s call to police ended in one of the responding officers fatally shooting her.
A source said Damond’s cellphone was found near her body.
“We lost the dearest of people and are desperate for information,” Damond’s fiancé, Don Damond, said Monday afternoon in his first public comments. “Piecing together Justine’s last moments before the homicide would provide small comfort as we grieve this tragedy.”
Just before 11:30 p.m. Saturday, Damond, 40, called 911 to report a possible assault occurring in an alley near her home between Washburn and Xerxes avenues S., in the Fulton neighborhood.
Damond, in her pajamas, went to the driver’s side door of the responding squad and was talking to the officer, according to three sources with direct knowledge of the case.
The incident comes just weeks after the acquittal of then-St. Anthony police officer Jeronimo Yanez, who fatally shot Philando Castile in a high-profile incident whose aftermath was broadcast live on Facebook, and less than two years after the Minneapolis police shooting of Jamar Clark, an unarmed black man.
The Damond shooting is front-page news across her native Australia, and correspondents from major news outlets in the country flew to Minneapolis on Monday to cover it.
The Sydney Morning Herald’s headline in Monday’s newspaper was “American Nightmare.”
“The Australian public and media go nuts for anything involving Australians overseas,” said Andy Ruzgar of 5AA Radio in Adelaide, South Australia. “This particular case is so bizarre. People are gripped by the story.”
Ruzgar said for two fairly similar countries culturally, the gun culture in the United States fascinates Australians.
“No one can have a gun in Australia,” he said. “And you would barely hear of a police shooting all over the country once a year. We just don’t have that culture.”
In the Twin Cities, the shooting exacerbated already-strained tensions between police and community members calling for more accountability within the department.
“I have many of the same questions and it is why we immediately asked for an external and independent investigation into the officer-involved shooting death,” said Harteau, who was out of state “on a personal commitment” but was receiving regular briefings and would return soon, according to a police spokesperson. “I also want to assure you that I understand why so many people have so many questions at this point. I’ve asked for the investigation to be expedited to provide transparency and to answer as many questions as quickly as we can.”
Harteau offered no further details and no explanation as to why the two officers were not recording on body cameras when Noor shot Damond.
The sequence of events was captured in part by police radio, published by website Minnesota PoliceClips, which records police-related media.
Officers responded to a report of a “female screaming behind the building.” Moments later, an officer reported “shots fired … one down at Washburn,” and an officer says he was performing CPR. About a minute after the shooting, an officer says there are “no suspects at large.”
On Monday, the BCA said in a news release that officers were responding to a 911 call of a possible assault, and “at one point an officer fired their weapon, fatally striking a woman.”
After confirming Sunday that there was no body camera or dashcam footage of the incident, the agency said the investigation “does not determine whether a law enforcement agency policy was violated. That would be reviewed through the agency’s internal affairs process.”
Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman said his office is monitoring the case, and he would decide himself whether to charge Noor with the shooting, rather than a grand jury — echoing the Clark case, in which he decided not to charge the officers and released evidence from the investigation.
Freeman said he believes Noor’s body camera should have been running at the time of the shooting.
“I do understand this, they were driving down an alley, the victim approached the car. That’s not necessarily a time you must [be taping], but frankly I think it’s a time you should,” he said.
Gov. Mark Dayton had no comment Monday on the shooting.
Law enforcement had previously criticized Dayton for comments he made after Castile was killed by Yanez.
Meanwhile, amid more questions than answers, the family and neighborhood mourned.
Flanked by his family in front of his home, Don Damond read a brief statement saying his fiancée called 911 to report “what she believed was an active sexual assault occurring nearby. … Sadly, her family and I have been provided with almost no information from law enforcement regarding what happened after police arrived.”
Over the past two days, friends, neighbors and strangers gathered to memorialize Damond. Some left heartfelt messages in chalk on the sidewalk near the scene, others laid flowers and paused in silent meditation.
“This is about Justine; it’s about Don.
“A horrific thing has happened in their lives, but it reverberates through the community,” said neighbor Richard Burbach, looking on as Australian news crews gathered around the home.
“I hope that the global media can continue to put enough focus on this that there is a kind of pressure that will … change policing, not just in Minneapolis but the country as well.”
Staff writers David Chanen, Stephen Montemayor, Libor Jany, Pat Pheifer and Paul Walsh contributed to this report.
Andy Mannix • 612-673-4036