MINNEAPOLIS — Testimony in the trial of a former Minneapolis police officer who shot and killed an unarmed woman after she called 911 to report a possible sexual assault near her home has shined a light on officers’ actions at the scene and raised questions about whether they were trying to protect one of their own.
The incident commander turned her body camera off when talking to Mohamed Noor in the moments after the July 2017 shooting of Justine Ruszczyk Damond, while other officers told him not to say a word, according to prosecutors and court testimony. Many responding officers turned their body cameras on and off at will; one had his camera recording while headed to the scene and shut it off upon arrival.
“These are extremely troublesome things,” said Phil Turner, a defense attorney and former federal prosecutor in Chicago who is not connected to the case. “They’re law enforcement officers and they are supposed to enforce the law equally, whether someone is a sworn law enforcement officer or not.”
Noor, 33, is on trial for murder and manslaughter in the death of Damond, a 40-year-old dual citizen of the U.S. and Australia who was shot while approaching the squad car that Noor and his partner, Officer Matthew Harrity, were in. Defense attorney Peter Wold said in his opening statement that Noor heard a loud bang on the squad car and feared an ambush. But prosecutors say there is no evidence of any threat to justify deadly force.
Noor and Harrity did not turn on their body cameras until after the shooting.
The shooting got instant international attention, led to the forced resignation of the city’s police chief, and led to changes in the department’s policy on body cameras. It also raised questions about a “blue wall of silence” as prosecutors said they had to convene a grand jury to compel officers’ testimony because many refused to provide statements.
Turner found this allegation troubling, saying officers around the U.S. have been covering for each other for years. He pointed to the aftermath of the 1991 police beating of Rodney King in Los Angeles. An independent commission found the code of silence among officers to be “perhaps the greatest single barrier to the effective investigation and adjudication of complaints” about police behavior.
“It’s the same thing, even back then,” he said. “It’s been going on for a long time.”
Prosecutors have told the court that about 20 police officers refused to talk to investigators and met with union officials to discuss withholding information.
In court documents, Judge Kathryn Quaintance cautioned prosecutors against making arguments about a general code of silence among officers based on their behavior at the scene. Prosecutors argued in court documents that statements and behaviors of some officers show bias as to why certain evidence was not gathered or kept.