Police shooting rattles Somalis in Minneapolis

Officer who fatally shot Australian woman was first Somali policeman in his precinct


His hiring by the Minneapolis Police Department was hailed by the mayor as “a wonderful sign”. Hundreds of Somalis attended an event at a local mall welcoming him to the force, lining up to take pictures and shake his hand.

But just 14 months after Mohamed Noor became the first Somali police officer to be stationed in his precinct, which has a large immigrant population, he is under scrutiny for fatally shooting an Australian woman on Saturday night after she called 911 to report a possible sexual assault near her home.

The encounter has drawn international outrage about US police practices – the Australian prime minister on Wednesday condemned the shooting of Justine Damond as “a shocking killing”. Her loved ones, including her father, John Ruszczyk, who lives in Sydney, have said they are desperate for information about what had happened. “Justine was a beacon to all of us,” he said.

On Wednesday, more details emerged. In the minutes before being shot, Damond, whose legal name was Justine Ruszczyk, called 911 twice, according to transcripts released by the Minneapolis police.

“I can hear someone out the back and I, I’m not sure if she’s having sex or being raped,” she told the dispatcher, “but it’s been going on for a while and I think she tried to say help and it sounds distressed.” The dispatcher said an officer was on the way.

Eight minutes later, with apparently no officers yet on scene, Damond called again to reiterate her concern for the woman, asking whether the police had the wrong address. The dispatcher assured her that officers were coming, and the call ended. Shortly thereafter, Noor arrived in the alley.

Noor’s hiring was seen as a bridge to a refugee community that has at times felt victimised by the police. Now, one of their own was the one in uniform accused of brutality. On Wednesday, the mayor of Minneapolis, Betsy Hodges, posted a Facebook message addressed to Somali residents, seeking to assure them that they “are a valued and appreciated part of Minneapolis”.

Somali officers

Mahamed Yusuf was at Karmel Mall for Noor’s welcome and said that local Somalis had been heartened to have one of their own on the police force. “We have a guy between the police and the community,” Yusuf said. Since the shooting, he said, Somalis have been “burning inside” and grasping for answers.

“He was looking so nice and humble, and he loved his job,” Yusuf (63) said. “Everybody in the community is shocked and sad.”

As the Somali immigrant population in Minneapolis has grown, members of the community have sometimes expressed frustration with law enforcement. In 2002, after Minneapolis officers fatally shot a Somali man carrying a machete, critics accused the officers of using excessive force, claiming the man was mentally ill and did not understand English.

More recently, some Somalis here have criticised the tactics used in federal prosecutions of young men accused of trying to join overseas terrorist organisations. The strain of police shootings of black people – with a few prominent cases in the Twin Cities area – has also left some Somalis wary of law enforcement.

The Minneapolis police have worked in recent years to add Somali officers to the force and have reached out to the immigrant community. After last year’s presidential election, amid heightened concern about deportations, a Somali-speaking officer recorded a YouTube video assuring residents that the local police did not enforce immigration law.

Hodges also said that Noor “won’t be treated differently than any other officer” and that the shooting had happened “under circumstances we don’t yet comprehend”.

“We cannot compound that tragedy by turning to racism, xenophobia and Islamophobia,” Hodges said. “It is unjust and ridiculous to assert that an entire community be held responsible for the actions of one person. That will not be tolerated in Minneapolis.”

Misconduct lawsuit

Minneapolis police records show that Noor has been the subject of three citizen complaints during his short career. Two of those cases remain open, and one was closed without any discipline. Details about those incidents were not released. Court records show that Noor has a son born in 2010 and that he was involved in 2015 in a custody dispute with the mother, who wanted to move out of state.

A day before the shooting, a lawsuit accusing Noor and two of his colleagues of misconduct was filed in federal court. The lawsuit, filed by a woman who said the police had illegally taken her into custody for a mental health checkup in May, said Noor had taken her phone from her hand “and then grabbed her right wrist and upper arm, thereby immobilising her”.

Jordan S Kushner, a lawyer for the woman, said Noor “was a participant in what we consider a real egregious and dramatic violation of her rights.” He noted that his client had initially called the police for help that day, just as the woman Noor shot on Saturday did.

Noor’s lawyer did not respond to repeated requests for an interview. Noor has so far declined to speak with state investigators about the shooting. No one answered the door Wednesday at an apartment tied to him.

Large numbers of Somali refugees, fleeing violence and famine in their homeland, began arriving in Minneapolis in the 1990s, and about 30,000 are said to live in the Twin Cities area. Members of the community have been elected to public office, worked as journalists and joined the military. But over the years, many Somalis have expressed frustration with their portrayals in the news media, saying reporters have unfairly emphasised stories about terrorist recruitment and cultural differences.

Abdirizak Bihi, a Somali community leader in Minneapolis, said that the relationship between the local police and Somalis had improved significantly in recent years and that the community celebrates when one of its members becomes an officer. He knows several Somali youths considering careers in law enforcement.

“We worked so hard to get Somali police officers,” Bihi said. Bihi said Somalis empathised with Damond as a fellow immigrant but resented the news media attention on Noor’s heritage. “Why in the world would he be seen as a Somali and not a Minneapolis police officer?” Bihi said. “The community feels betrayed.”

Reaction in Somalia

The shooting also made headlines in Somalia, where many worried it could paint a negative image of Somalis and harm the status of refugee applications, many of which have been rejected under President Donald Trump’s travel ban. “Many Somalis are talking about the case as though the case occurred here in Somalia,” said Abdirahman Hassan Omar, a lawyer in Somalia. “Because of the travel ban, this is making us worried a lot.”

The shooting, said Nadiir Shariif Maqbuul, an activist in Mogadishu, the capital, will affect Somali communities not only in Australia and the United States but also in Europe and elsewhere. In Minneapolis, people who had met Noor struggled to square their recollections of him with the shooting of Damond, which, so far at least, has defied explanation.

“Officer Noor was a good guy,” said Abdihakim Bashir (35), who was shopping on Wednesday at the bustling Karmel Mall. “We were very surprised by the news. We don’t know what happened. It was an accident, and every human can make a mistake.”

New York Times

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