Minnesota cop's trial raises questions about code of silence

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.

Posted: Apr 16, 2019 1:23 PM

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — 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."

More recently, Chicago was rocked by claims of a cover-up in the 2014 fatal shooting of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald. Officer Jason Van Dyke was convicted of second-degree murder at a trial in which several officers reluctantly testified against him. A judge later acquitted three officers of staging a cover-up, dismissing as just one perspective the dashcam video of Van Dyke opening fire as McDonald walked away from police and continuing to fire after the teenager crumpled to the ground.

At Noor's trial, some officers have described arriving to a hectic, confusing situation in which they didn't initially know Damond had been shot by an officer. Officer Jesse Lopez told Noor: "Just keep to yourself. Keep your mouth shut until you have to say anything to anybody."

Prosecutors have also raised questions about the noise that Harrity later told investigators precipitated the shooting. Harrity initially told the incident commander that the officers got spooked, prosecutor Patrick Lofton told jurors. But the first mention of a possible slap on the squad car came not from Noor or Harrity but rather from others at the scene who made assumptions about what happened, according to Lofton. The first time Harrity mentioned anything about a loud noise on the squad car was days later, when he spoke with state investigators.

Prosecutors also have told the court that about 20 police officers refused to talk to investigators and met with union officials to discuss withholding information.

Union president Lt. Bob Kroll, who is listed as a possible witness, told The Associated Press he could not comment. But in an interview with the Star Tribune, Kroll dismissed the idea that officers were withholding information.

"That's an easy sweeping statement to make and without some concrete hard evidence, which they won't find in this case," Kroll said.

A police spokesman did not immediately respond to a message seeking comment.

Body cameras have been seen as one way to counter the "blue wall." Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo, who was the assistant chief at the time, testified that officers should have left theirs on. Arradondo said that under the department's body camera policy at the time, officers were expected to hit record when conducting traffic stops or "any sorts of contact where an officer believes that there may be an adversarial situation that develops."

But officers were given wide discretion. The revised policy requires officers to activate the cameras in most public encounters. Still, it gives officers latitude and says they can temporarily deactivate their cameras to discuss an incident with a co-worker.

Sgt. Shannon Barnette, the incident commander, was asked Tuesday why she turned her camera on and off. She said the department's policy on cameras "was confusing."

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.

"The jury should question the credibility of any officer's testimony if he or she demonstrates an unwillingness to give full or truthful testimony because of a bias toward police," prosecutors wrote.

Minnesota Coronavirus Cases

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Reported Deaths: 8104
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Hennepin1417751856
Ramsey59044950
Dakota52670498
Anoka48579482
Washington30969309
Stearns25163241
St. Louis20636336
Scott19872145
Wright18754163
Olmsted16057111
Sherburne13701104
Carver1224752
Clay926795
Rice9192121
Blue Earth881947
Crow Wing7905102
Kandiyohi749389
Chisago722958
Otter Tail678794
Benton6567101
Mower569138
Winona561352
Goodhue556680
Douglas541684
Itasca526471
Beltrami516972
McLeod512064
Steele510721
Isanti495670
Morrison472463
Nobles452950
Becker443759
Polk438675
Freeborn433838
Lyon398754
Carlton394459
Nicollet384047
Pine378426
Mille Lacs359360
Brown353044
Cass350635
Le Sueur344729
Todd327334
Meeker310249
Waseca294525
Martin267933
Wabasha24654
Dodge24575
Hubbard236141
Roseau234824
Houston206816
Redwood203542
Renville202448
Fillmore200210
Pennington193022
Wadena188926
Faribault182225
Sibley178410
Cottonwood178324
Chippewa172639
Kanabec166729
Aitkin156838
Watonwan156511
Rock140719
Jackson135112
Pope13468
Yellow Medicine126620
Pipestone125326
Koochiching121919
Stevens121511
Swift118819
Murray116010
Marshall105318
Clearwater104818
Lake92821
Wilkin90214
Lac qui Parle86824
Mahnomen7059
Big Stone6964
Grant6958
Norman6699
Lincoln6554
Kittson53522
Unassigned51793
Red Lake4927
Traverse4315
Lake of the Woods4114
Cook2150

Iowa Coronavirus Cases

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Cases: 435755

Reported Deaths: 6339
CountyCasesDeaths
Polk67341672
Linn25698353
Scott22828261
Black Hawk19121334
Woodbury16940233
Johnson1659690
Dubuque14547218
Pottawattamie13058183
Dallas12746102
Story1187148
Unassigned93740
Warren685993
Webster6304102
Cerro Gordo6212102
Clinton620097
Des Moines594482
Muscatine5781108
Marshall564280
Sioux542775
Jasper516575
Lee511078
Wapello4993128
Buena Vista472942
Marion449083
Plymouth434083
Henry339940
Jones331158
Bremer325365
Crawford321644
Carroll317053
Washington315754
Benton312656
Boone308736
Mahaska275453
Dickinson270846
Kossuth251471
Jackson246044
Clay245729
Tama238273
Delaware234643
Buchanan233938
Hardin230847
Page221624
Cedar220525
Fayette220345
Wright217641
Winneshiek215937
Hamilton211752
Harrison198875
Clayton194458
Madison193820
Butler188836
Floyd187742
Mills185224
Poweshiek181036
Cherokee179440
Iowa176425
Allamakee176252
Lyon174441
Jefferson169138
Calhoun168313
Hancock167335
Winnebago164231
Grundy158835
Cass155556
Louisa154949
Shelby151739
Appanoose151249
Emmet149541
Franklin148524
Humboldt147226
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Union144237
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Guthrie138132
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Adair95334
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