The Minneapolis police officer who fatally shot Justine Ruszczyk Damond two summers ago had no reason to use deadly force and violated department policy and national standards by doing so, two use-of-force experts said Wednesday.
Even if former officer Mohamed Noor had been startled by a loud noise that night, as defense attorneys claim, he would not have been justified in using a Taser or pepper spray — much less his gun, the prosecution witnesses testified.
“The use of force was objectionable, unreasonable and violated police policies … and training,” said expert witness Derrick Hacker. “No reasonable officer would have perceived a threat by somebody coming up to their squad.”
Noor and his partner, Matthew Harrity, were responding to Damond’s 911 call about a possible sexual assault in the alley behind her south Minneapolis home on July 15, 2017, when, according to Harrity’s testimony, a loud “thud” on their squad and a “silhouette” at Harrity’s driver’s side window caused them to fear they were being ambushed.
Defense attorneys have said Noor saw the figure raising an arm and fired from the passenger seat through Harrity’s open window to protect them.
Hacker and another prosecution witness, Timothy Longo Sr., gave similar testimony Wednesday as they outlined how the officers made a string of bad decisions leading up to their deadly encounter with Damond.
“I don’t believe they were logical or rational at all,” Longo said of Noor’s actions. “This was an unprovoked, violent response.”
Longo, a former police chief in Charlottesville, Va., and former Baltimore police colonel, said the officers should have turned their body cameras on when they investigated the alley and should have contacted Damond since she called 911 a second time to check on their arrival time.
Harrity’s decision to remove the hood from his gun’s holster for easier access during the drive down the alley, which he testified to, was also premature, Longo said.
Hacker, a Crystal police lieutenant, argued that the outcome may have been different if they had handled the call with more care.
“This whole situation would have been avoided,” Hacker said.
Hacker testified that he has been paid nearly $30,000 for his work on behalf of the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office, while Longo testified that the institute he works for billed the office $14,500.
Defense attorney Peter Wold’s cross-examination of Hacker focused on his lack of training with officers in two-person squads. Hacker testified that Crystal police work in one-person squads due to staffing. The defense has pushed the importance of partners backing each other on the job and relying on each other to make appropriate decisions.
Wold asked if Hacker trained officers how to respond as partners.
No, Hacker said.
Hacker tried to circumvent the questioning by saying individual officers should make their own decisions.
When Wold explored the topic further, Hacker said he worked alongside partners as part of a multiagency SWAT team, which he oversees, and a multiagency drug task force.
Wold leveraged that in his favor, asking Hacker about the time he used deadly force in his 17 years on the SWAT team.
Hacker acknowledged that he had never shot a person, but once killed a dog.
“There was apparent death or great bodily harm in that situation,” Hacker said.
Hacker said an “aggressive” dog advanced toward another officer during the execution of a warrant inside a building, prompting him to shoot.
“You made that decision in a split second?” Wold asked.
“Yes, based on that threat and identifying that threat,” Hacker said.
Identify the target
Hacker, who has served as a use-of-force instructor since his days in the Marines in the early 1990s, said accounts of the noise that apparently startled the officers were “vague” and didn’t meet the threshold for using deadly force. Officers are taught to apply a “force continuum” that starts with none and escalates up to deadly force when an officer feels lives are in danger, or to stop a suspect who has committed or is committing a felony, he said.
“You need to identify the target: who it is, is it a male, is it a female?” he said. “If an officer cannot see that, then the officer is not allowed to use deadly force.”
Noor, Hacker concluded, should have known better after undergoing “use of firearms in lowlight” and “pre-ambush awareness” training during his stint at the police academy.
“Is being startled or spooked the same as fearing death or great bodily harm?” asked Assistant Hennepin County Attorney Patrick Lofton.
“No, it is not,” Hacker responded.
The officers should have taken greater steps to investigate Damond’s call, he said, making the connection between her call about a woman possibly screaming in her alley and an earlier incident involving an apparently disoriented woman who was wandering through the area.
“Would you pull your gun out?” Lofton asked regarding Damond’s call.
“No, absolutely not,” Hacker said.
Hacker argued that the officers’ decision to pull out their guns inside their SUV was “unreasonable and is unacceptable.” The matter is a point of contention with the defense.
Officers are trained to draw their guns quickly when a threat emerges, Hacker said, precluding them from needing their firearms unholstered.
“By driving around with a handgun, there’s a higher propensity for other things to happen,” he said, pointing to the possibility of an accidental discharge. “I would say, even in an active shooter call, it isn’t needed.”
Lofton asked him whether Damond “did anything wrong” by approaching the officers.
“No, Ms. Ruszczyk did nothing wrong — police are approached daily, this happens routinely,” he said, adding that he didn’t find it unusual that 911 dispatchers didn’t instruct her to stay put.
Longo said officers should know how to handle people approaching their squad cars, and not the opposite.
“That just defies logic to me that we would have to train citizens from approaching police cars,” he said.
The experts’ turn on the witness stand came toward the end of the prosecution’s case, although Longo will return Thursday morning for cross-examination. Defense attorneys have said they plan to call three expert witnesses when the prosecution rests; it’s unknown whether Noor will testify on his own behalf.
Chao Xiong • 612-673-4391
Libor Jany • 612-673-4064 Twitter: @StribJany