The dark side of American policing once again became an international story late on July 15, when Minneapolis police shot dead Justine Damond outside of her own home, after she called 911 for police help.
The 40-year-old Australian woman and Minneapolis resident became an unlikely victim in a pattern of civilian shootings that are unheard of in Europe, Canada, Japan, South Korea, New Zealand, and Australia.
The intense global coverage of Damond’s killing was inevitable given the unlikely profiles of the deceased and the trigger man.
A Victim and a Cop—How Both Defied the Uncomfortable Normal
Damond ultimately shared a fate of African-American men killed by law enforcement in recent years. Such men are easily categorized as a potential threat or criminals to police or to the public who fear them.
No one could claim Damond had any resemblance to Ferguson resident Michael Brown, the 18-year-old African-American man who was gunned down by white police officer Darren Wilson, 28, in August 2014.
Damond was white woman. She had blonde hair. She was unarmed and dressed in pajamas outside of her own house, on the eve of her marriage. Damond had called 911 as a good Samaritan, in response to sounds of a possible sexual assault she reportedly heard outside of her residence.
Damond was exactly the type of person all of want as a neighbor because of her concerns for others.
Damond also was a former vet and yoga instructor who moved to the United States in 2015 and was engaged to American businessman and Minneapolis resident Don Damond.
More importantly, she emigrated from Australia, where police seldom use deadly force and where there are strict gun control laws, first implemented two decades earlier.
The officer who killed her because of his alleged fear an ambush did not fit the profile of other officer-involved killings as well.
The policeman, Mohamed Noor, 32, is of Somali descent and a Moslem. Less than two years on the job, he was recruited by the Minneapolis police from the immigrant Somali community, where some young Somali-American men have been connected to the Islamic terror group al-Shabab in Somalia.
Noor represented a model for others to follow and to bridge cultural divides.
In other words, a black man of Somali descent and Moslem American from a community that already was in the media crosshairs shot and killed an obviously attractive, white, middle-class, and foreign woman in a major American city.
Many observers were stunned the killing could have occurred to an innocent civilian who had called for police help to investigate a possible sexual assault—actions that police encourage every citizen to do in nearly every city in the United States.
Damond’s Killing: A Rorschach and Rashomon Study of Officer-Involved Shootings
The shooting death is already a Hollywood movie before all of the facts and fogs of conflicting stories will ever be known.
What little we know are the likely time of Damond’s death after her 911 call and that Noor, sitting in the patrol car’s passenger seat, shot her to death from the driver’s side window.
A witness reportedly has come forward saying he was biking home and filmed the effort to resuscitate her by Noor and officer Matthew Harrity. She was shot at nearly point-blank range in the abdomen, and the chances of survival would have been slim, even with the best medical help, were she even alive.
The more murky “facts” surrounding Damond’s death also call into question police accountability through the use of body cameras—an issue that has been hotly debated in the wake of repeated “officer-involved” shootings of minorities nationwide.
In this case, the two officers dispatched to Damond’s 911 call had turned off their body cameras, in violation of the city’s official and controversial video policy implemented a year earlier. To date, no explanation has been provided why the pair had not followed mandatory procedures to record their actions with body and dashboard cameras precisely to avoid the cloudy circumstances that now surround this killing. Police departments nationally have bristled at civilian demands for police-worn body cameras for years.
Officer Noor’s claim of being startled by a loud pop at the sight of a woman in pajamas has been lambasted by many who have voiced outrage.
Many minority activists demanding policy accountability for shootings of civilians allege non-white victims of police shootings often say they posed no threats before they were gunned down, like former Ferguson resident Brown. No jury has sided with the victims since Brown’s death.
The shooting had other ingredients for becoming an international incident:
- The officer’s status as a Moslem man from an immigrant community potentially will attract the interest of Moslems globally. Many in that community are fearful and resentful of stereotyping, and President Donald Trump’s rhetoric against Moslems in the United States and his recent travel ban of Moslems from six Moslem-majority nations have alarmed many in the Moslem world.
- Inside the United States, more white Americans, notably those who live in the suburbs and who are supposedly immune from heavy-handed, militarized policing, might become more alarmed that they too could be killed for engaging law enforcement for help. The shooting creates a PR barrier even among the police’s large and ready-built fan base.
- Women in particular might be more fearful of ever calling any police officer for assistance, given the violence on display in Damond’s death. It would be fascinating to do a poll how many American woman who self-identify as middle-class and educated feel safe contacting local police for assistance, particularly in cases of domestic violence.
- Foreign nationals, particularly international students and more affluent Asians and Europeans, might reconsider travel to the United States for travel, study, or business, given the racial dynamics of the shooting showing starkly that, yes, even white, blonde yoga instructors with charming Aussie accents are not safe in a secure area, from the local authorities.
Damond’s Death: Black, White, and Somewhere in Between
Within days after the shooting, troll commentaries in media stories on sites like Yahoo News were swift to describe the shooter’s ethnicity and religion as likely reasons why Noor killed Damond.
Other commentators on many news web sites mocked the irony that police thought the blonde female victim was accidentally mistaken for a large, scary black man.
Writing about the irony of the killing, The Root wryly noted, “Why is it that the one shooting that suddenly has white people fearing the cops is the shooting that takes one of their own? I’ll tell you why. It’s because they finally found their ‘perfect’ victim. She was white and blonde and rescued ducks out of sewers. She was the antithesis of the ‘superpredator’ image they want you to believe represents blackness. She didn’t deserve to die. But neither did any of the others.”
In Minneapolis, the response has defied some expected outcomes of those quick to frame the issue as black and white. Some who joined in protests a day after Damond’s death were African-American activists, who had protested the shooting of unarmed black motorist Philando Castile, 32, just outside of St. Paul by a Hispanic police officer, Jeronimo Yanez, on June 6, 2016.
Only a month earlier, on June 6, 2017, a jury acquited Janez. The story drew heated debates and national coverage and framed the public response to the Damond shooting from the start.
Castile was gunned down reaching for his wallet—a killing caught on the police dashboard camera. It is profoundly troubling footage to observe. His killing at the hands of a uniformed police officer—Hispanic, not white—was just another in a series of high-profile shootings of African-American men in the past three years that helped to launch the national Black Lives Matter movement.
Following Damond’s slaying, nearly 300 people attended Damond’s vigil. They included Cathy Jones, an African-American woman who had marched at protests with Black Lives Matter and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). She told The Guardian newspaper, “I think it’s important because these are things that affect our community every single day. It’s never been about race. It’s been about police accountability.”
Many of protesters on July 20 in Damond’s neighborhood connected Damond’s death with Castile’s. His mother, Valerie Castile, was shown hugging the widowed fiancé, Dom Damond.
On July 21, Minneapolis Police Chief Janeé Harteau resigned under pressure. The same day, protesters disrupted Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges’ press conference.
The two female leaders, both white women, had long been at odds. Harteau had publicly battled city and state officials, and in October 2013, she rejected proposals for body cameras by Hodges and other city council members—a month before Hodges was elected mayor.
Why Damond Stands Out Beyond Her Race
Damond, 40, also fetched a striking image, in the photographs of her that splashed on the internet and airwaves soon after her death.
She was by all measures athletic and very attractive, with blonde hair and a winning smile. She had been a vet, who then became a yoga and meditation instructor. She was the type of middle-class woman you might spot in yoga tights, carrying a yoga pad in a gentrified neighborhood, like my own, where I daily see many women who match this demographic profile take classes at two local yoga studios.
Damond’s shooting generated intense interest from the Australian media and its leaders. The level of interest was larger than what Americans might see of shooting victims in their own country.
In Damond’s native country, news of the meditation teacher’s baffling death has dominated the airwaves, newspapers and websites for days, feeding into Australians’ long-held fears about America’s notorious culture of gun violence. Philip Alpers at the University of Sydney, who has studied U.S. gun issues, said, “The country is infested with possibly more guns than people. We see America as a very risky place in terms of gun violence—and so does the rest of the world.”
A front-page headline in her hometown Sydney newspaper summarized Australia’s reaction in blunt terms: “American Nightmare.”
Days after the killing, Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnball told Australia’s Today Show what many Australians were also saying publicly about the case and violence in the United States: “How can a woman out in the street in her pajamas seeking assistance from police be shot like that? It is a shocking killing. We are demanding answers on behalf of her family. And our hearts go out to her family and all of her friends and loved ones. It’s a truly tragic, tragic killing there in Minneapolis.”
Shortly after the Minneapolis shooting, the Washington Post reported that more than 520 people had been shot and killed by police officers in the United States in the calendar year, well on pace to surpass 963 shooting deaths by police during 2016.
Deadly shootings by police are exceedingly rare in Australia, even though the police carry firearms. Only a handful are reported each year, according to the Australian Institute of Criminology. By comparison, the United States has by policy prevented the creation of national database of deadly police-involved shootings. The body count has come from independent media monitors.
An AP story from July 18 also noted Austalians’ bewilderment with U.S. gun laws. By comparison, Australia implemented vigorous tough gun ownership laws in 1996 following a deadly mass shooting on the island of Tasmania that killed 36 people.
At the time, then-Prime Minister John Howard—a conservative—warned Australians against following America’s lead on gun control, saying: “We have an opportunity in this country not to go down the American path.”
What my Reaction Tells me as Well:
Until this essay, I had not written any articles about the deaths of African-American and minority victims from encounters with the police. I have professional ties that now limit what I talk about on this blog. Also, I exhausted my energy writing and talking about gun violence in the United States, following the mass shootings in 2012 in Aurora, Colorado, which took 12 lives, and in Newtown, Connecticut, which claimed 26 victims.
My efforts to frame that story through a public health lens left me feeling powerless and that I could not make a difference. I ultimately stopped writing and talking about gun violence and focused this blog and my energies in more positive directions.
Yet again I am drawn into the discussion of an issue that I feel I cannot change. This time, however, many more affluent white Americans now know such random violence by gunfire can happen to any of them, even those who are most privileged by every measure, at the hands of police they call on for protection in supposedly safe, secure neighborhoods. Perhaps now there might be some momentum to reduce gun violence in the United States—something I longed for and then abandoned five years ago after the Newtown massacre.