Minneapolis officers in police shooting officially named, Somali community braces for backlash
MINNEAPOLIS — When Mohamed Noor joined the Minneapolis police force and was assigned to patrol the city's southwest corner, the Somali community there - the nation's largest - threw a party for him to celebrate.
He was the first Somali American officer to serve in Minneapolis's fifth precinct and one of less than a dozen Somali-American officers in the department. His presence on the squad brought Somali activists some pride and reassurance at a time of Islamophobia in America and nationwide racial tension stoked in part by shootings of black people by white police officers.
Now that same Somali community is bracing for a backlash that has already begun.
On Tuesday night, the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension named Noor as the officer who fatally shot an unarmed Australian woman in the city's popular Fulton neighborhood over the weekend, an incident that has grabbed global attention and thrust Minneapolis into yet another uproar over police violence.
The other officer named was Matthew Harrity, who has been an officer with the department for a year. Noor had been an officer for almost two years.
BCA agents interviewed Harrity earlier Tuesday. Noor has declined to be interviewed by BCA agents at this time and his attorney, Tom Plunkett, did not provide clarification on when, if ever, an interview would be possible.
Plunkett said in a vague statement that the officer "extends his condolences" to those mourning 40-year-old Justine Damond's death and "takes their loss seriously."
"We would like to say more, and will in the future," Plunkett said. "At this time, however, there are several investigations ongoing and Officer Noor wants to respect the privacy to the family and asks the same in return during this difficult period."
Though Plunkett did not respond to requests to explicitly confirm that Noor fired the shot that killed Damond, several Somali leaders in Minneapolis said in interviews with The Washington Post that they were aware of the officer's involvement.
"There is no question that he is the officer," Somali activist Omar Jamal told The Post. "We knew this right after the shooting but we didn't want to release the name."
The Hennepin County Medical Examiner announced Monday night that Damond - identified by her birth name Justine Ruszczyk - died from a gunshot found to the abdomen and ruled the death a homicide. She was set to marry her American fiance Don Damond next month, and had already been using his last name.
Witnesses at the scene Saturday night said that the officer who fired his gun appeared to be Somali, Jamal said, so he and others in the community began contacting all the Somalis in the department. They knew the shooting took place in the fifth precinct, where Noor is the only Somali officer.
"We came to know that, 'oh gosh, that's him,'" Jamal said. "Then the word spread fast."
The report stoked fear among Twin Cities Somalis, who have worked for decades to become part of the city's fabric. There are now Somalis on the police force, the city council and in the Minnesota House of Representatives. But the largely Muslim population of Somali Americans in the Twin Cities region still face Islamophobia and innuendo about terrorism.
"They fear this will be just another event used to create animosity toward the Somali community," Mohamud Noor, executive director at the Confederation of Somali Community in Minnesota, told The Post.
Already, hateful posts criticizing Islam and sharia law are filling social media in response to the police shooting. Several far-right blogs featured sensational headlines that blamed the officer's ethnicity, not his training, for the deadly use of force.
Other Somali officers in the police department are "nervous," Jamal said.
"They're not talking at all," he said. "You can feel the pressure, because you know, the difference now is 'one of you guys did it.'
"The fact that the police involved in the shooting is Somali makes it a different matter," he said.
Mohamud Noor, who is not related to the officer, is also a city council candidate. He and others in the Somali community have protested other police shootings in the Twin Cities region along with Black Lives Matter, but this one "changes the narrative," he said. Usually, they are protesting the death of black men at the hands of police, he said. Now it is a white woman reportedly shot by a black officer.
He hopes the conversation will focus on police reform, not racial stereotypes.
"This is the time to bring people together," he said. "We have so many questions. What happened? Why were the body cameras off?"
According to authorities, there is no known video or audio footage of the shooting, which occurred after Damond called 911 to report a possible sexual assault in the alley behind her home late Saturday night.
In the BCA report Tuesday night, it said the officers drove south through the alley between Washburn and Xerxes avenues toward West 51st Street in search of a suspect. All squad lights were off.
As they reached West 51st Street, Harrity indicated that he was startled by a loud sound near the squad. Immediately afterward Ruszczyk approached the driver’s side window of the squad, he said.
Harrity indicated that Noor then discharged his weapon, striking Ruszczyk through the open driver’s side window.
There were some unconfirmed reports that he accidentally shot the woman while taking his gun out.
After the shooting, the officers immediately exited the squad and provided medical attention until medical personnel arrived, said the BCA report.
Both officers have been placed on standard administrative leave.
Harrity told investigators that the officers saw an 18-25 year old white male who was bicycling eastbound on West 51st Street immediately before the shooting. This individual stopped at the scene and watched as the officers provided medical assistance. BCA agents would like to speak with this person, and anyone else who may have witnessed the incident. These individuals are asked to contact the BCA at 651-793-7000.
The two officers involved did not turn on their body cameras, authorities said. The police car's dash camera did not capture the incident, either.
Noor joined the force in 2015 and completed his field training just over a year ago, according to a May 2016 city bulletin welcoming him to the fifth precinct. The officer graduated from Augsburg College, a Lutheran school in Minneapolis, with a degree in economics and business administration, according to the posting. He worked in real estate in Minneapolis and St. Louis before becoming an officer.
Noor has had two complaints filed against him during his brief tenure with the police department, reported the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Two remain open and a third was closed without discipline, according to the newspaper.
But in the wake of Monday's news tying him to Damond's death, Somali community members said he was a role model who brought enthusiasm to the job.
"As you can imagine, when immigrants join the police they feel like they are part of the larger community," Jamal said. "This is our community, we serve and protect."
After Noor's welcome party to the fifth precinct last year, Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges posted a note on Facebook saying his arrival had been "highly celebrated, particularly by the Somali community" and was "a wonderful sign of building trust and community policing at work."
The statement from Plunkett, Noor's attorney, said that the officer came to the United States at a young age.
"He takes these events very seriously because, for him, being a police officer is a calling," Plunkett said. "He joined the police force to serve the community.... Officer Noor is a caring person with a family he loves and empathizes with the loss others are experiencing."
Barry Amundson of Forum News Service contributed to this report.