Minneapolis Police Chief Doesn't Back Officer Who Shot Australian Woman

by | July 21, 2017

By Andy Mannix and Emma Nelson

Minneapolis Police Chief Janeé Harteau on Thursday called the shooting death of Justine Damond "unnecessary" and bluntly said it contradicted the mission and training given to her officers.

"Justine didn't have to die," Harteau said.

In her first public appearance since the Saturday shooting, Harteau said that based on what is publicly known about the case, there is no justification for officer Mohamed Noor's decision to shoot Damond.

While the shooting and any possible misconduct are still under investigation by the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, Harteau repeated several times at a news conference that the death was unnecessary and that the officers involved should have turned on their body cameras. She added that the shooting was "one individual's actions" and not reflective of the department.

"Based on the publicly released information from the BCA, this should not have happened," Harteau said, referring to a preliminary investigative report released earlier in the week. "On our squad cars, you will find the words 'To protect with courage and serve with compassion.' This did not happen.

"I believe the actions in question go against who we are as a department, how we train and the expectations we have for our officers. These were the actions and judgments of one individual," she said.

Harteau stopped short of calling the shooting legally unjustified, saying, "that'll be part of the criminal investigation."

Her brief but expansive news conference gave no more information as to why Noor shot Damond after she called 911 to report a possible sexual assault last Saturday in south Minneapolis. The death of Damond, a 40-year-old spiritual teacher from Australia who was engaged to be married, drew international attention and widespread mourning. In an interview Thursday, Mayor Betsy Hodges also reiterated calls to reform the city's body camera policy.

Harteau's news conference, attended by several members of the Australian media, ranged over topics from Noor's training to Harteau's absence from Minneapolis since the shooting. Harteau said she did not know Noor well, and had spoken to him only in passing, but that he "absolutely" performed well during training. She dismissed claims from critics such as former U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., who on Wednesday called Noor, who is Somali-American, "an affirmative-action hire."

"This is about an individual officer's actions. It is not about race or ethnicity," Harteau said. "We have a very robust training and hiring process. This officer completed that training very well, just like every officer. He was very suited to be on the street."

Harteau emphatically maintained that, based on what she knows, both officers' body cameras should have been running. Plans are in place to enhance the current policy for when they should be on -- and covering multiple scenarios, she said. "Certainly, when you're going to have interaction when you're dispatched to a call," Harteau said.

However, she said the program is only eight months old. "It's not second nature for officers to put those cameras on yet." Harteau said she spoke with Damond's fiancé, Don Damond, who told her he worried that the shooting would send a message that it's unsafe to call 911.

"Although disheartening, I understand the fear and why it exists," she said. "This has had a negative impact on the community trust we've built. Moving forward, we will work toward regaining the trust with everything we do."

Harteau said she wishes Noor would reconsider his decision to refuse to be interviewed by investigators, because "there are questions that need to be answered and he is the only one that has those answers."

Noor's partner that night, Matthew Harrity, told investigators that as he was driving in an alley, he was startled by a loud sound near their squad, according to a BCA report released Tuesday.

Damond approached the driver's side window of the squad car "immediately afterward," according to the BCA. Noor shot from the passenger seat, across his partner and through the window, striking Damond in the abdomen. She died at the scene 20 minutes later. Asked about firing the shot from inside the squad, Harteau was succinct: "That's not how we train."

The BCA has declined to provide more information on the investigation. A spokesman for the Hennepin County attorney's office said Thursday that the BCA has not provided a timeline for when the investigation will be completed.

Harteau had been out of town since the shooting. She said Thursday she was backpacking in remote mountains on a personal trip, but received briefings.

Hodges echoed Harteau's sentiments, saying that the Damond shooting should not have happened and that the lack of body camera footage is unacceptable. "Given the facts that we know that the investigators have given us, those body cameras should have been on," Hodges said. "Why weren't they?"

Hodges said she expects the Police Department "to make any and all changes needed to our policy so that we can be sure we will have bodycam footage when we need it," and to take the events surrounding Saturday's shooting into consideration when making those changes.

Earlier this week, Damond's family hired Twin Cities attorney Robert Bennett, who is known for working on high-profile police misconduct cases. He recently represented Philando Castile's mother in a lawsuit over the police shooting death of her son. The suit was settled for $3 million. Bennett said Damond's relatives are seeking a transparent investigation, body camera policy reform and changes in how officers are trained and selected. They also want swift discipline -- including possible termination -- for Noor.

Following the criminal investigation, Bennett said it is likely Damond's family here and in Australia will consider a lawsuit. "I can't conceive the circumstances where they wouldn't," he said.

Staff writers Hannah Covington, Brandon Stahl and Miguel Otárola contributed to this report.

(c)2017 the Star Tribune (Minneapolis)