Justine Damond
Justine Damond (Courtesy photo)

The fatal shooting of an Australian woman in Minneapolis over the weekend has sparked debate about police body cameras — which department policy dictates must be activated “prior to any use of force.”

Justine Damond, an Australia native, phoned authorities at around 11:30 pm on Saturday, according to a release from the Minnesota Department of Public Safety. Damond was calling to report a possible sexual assault occurring in an alley behind her home.

DPS also confirmed that two officers responded to the call but neither of them had their body cameras turned on, and there is no known dash cam footage of the incident.

The Star Tribune reported that three sources “with knowledge of the incident” said Damond was talking to one of the officers at the driver’s side door, in her pajamas, when the officer in the passenger seat fired at least once, shooting Damond through the driver’s side door. Damond was not carrying a weapon at the time of her death, and it remains unclear why the gun was fired.

The officer who pulled the trigger was later identified as Mohamed Noor, and a source identified the other officer as Matthew Harrity, according to ABC 5 affiliate KSTP. Both officers have been put on paid administrative leave, per department policy after a shooting.

Damond, a veterinarian, yoga instructor and life coach, was set to marry her fiancé, Don Damond, in August. Damond formerly went by Justine Ruszczyk but had taken her fiancé’s name already. But Damond will not have the opportunity to walk down the aisle, and despite a policy that dictates there be footage of the tragedy, the officers’ failure to comply has left Damond’s family as well as the city with more questions than answers.

Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges said on Facebook over the weekend, “As Mayor of our City, a wife, and a grandmother, I am heartsick and deeply disturbed by what occurred last night.”

“I have the same questions you do, and I seek the same answers you seek,” she said in another post on Monday afternoon. “This process is difficult, but I want to be sure we get this right.”

Interim Executive Director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota Teresa Nelson said in a statement that by not having their body cams turned on the two officers “thwarted the public’s right to know what happened to Ms. Damond and why the police killed her.”

“Consequences should be added to the policy to ensure better compliance and accountability,” Nelson said.

The Minneapolis Police Department’s policy 4-223, “Body Worn Cameras,” does not list any repercussions for officers who fail to activate body cameras during incidents that they are required to do so.

Minneapolis Police Chief Janeé Harteau in a statement said she also has a lot of questions regarding the incident.

Damond’s son Zach spoke out against the police and America in a July 16 Facebook video posted to the Women’s March Minnesota page.

“So basically, my mom is dead because a police officer shot her for reasons I don’t know, and I demand answers.”

“I’m so done with all this violence,” he went on. “It’s so much bullsh*t. America sucks. These cops need to get trained differently. I need to move out of here.”

“I just know that she heard a sound in the alley, so then she called the police, and the cops showed up and … she was a very passionate woman, and she probably — she thought there was something bad happening, and then next thing I know, they take my best friend’s life.”

Minnesota was rattled last summer after the fatal shooting of Philando Castile by a police officer. His girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, livestreamed Castile’s final moments as he bled to death in the front seat of his car. Dash cam footage also later came out, showing Castile was compliant with former officer Jeronimo Yanez. However, Yanez, who shot Castile, was acquitted of the criminal charges against him.

Last July Yanez pulled over Castile for a broken brake light in Falcon Heights, a suburb of St. Paul, Minn. Dash cam footage shows that Castile disclosed to Yanez he was legally carrying a firearm. Yanez told Castile, “Don’t reach for it.”

“I’m not pulling it out,” Castile said.

Within seconds Yanez reached into the car, then fired seven shots and hit Castile five times, including twice in the heart.

Castile’s permit to carry a gun was later found in his wallet.

Yanez testified during the trial that he feared for his life after Castile began reaching for a firearm. But the dashboard camera video does not clarify whether Castile had reached for his gun he told the officer he was carrying.

Jurors acquitted Yanez even though prosecutors said he was not justified in firing his gun, saying Castile was courteous and non-threatening.

If video footage does eventually turn up of Damond’s last moments alive, and if it shows that Noor’s decision to fire his weapon was in fact unjustified, it does not mean Damond’s family will see justice.

A study updated last August concluded that of 50 United States police departments with body cam policies, none of them are effectively and appropriately implementing these policies. Notably, the police department in Ferguson, Mo., failed to meet even the minimum qualifications in any of the areas the study took into account.

“Police Worn Body Cameras: A Policy Scorecard” found that just having the equipment or policies isn’t enough to achieve positive change.

“Transparency and accountability doesn’t come automatically just because a police department has decided to buy cameras,” said Harlan Yu, principal of Upturn, the organization that authored the study.

As police-related deaths of Black men have dominated headlines over the past couple of years, video footage has frequently played a large role, which has pushed for more people to call on departments to require officers to wear cameras. But in practice, the cameras are not always as effective as intended. In some cases, witnesses have been the ones to record incidents, often using cellphones.

In Baton Rouge, 37-year-old Alton Sterling was shot and killed by a police officer last month. The two officers involved were both wearing body cameras, but the cameras fell off during the struggle and did not capture the shooting. Cellphone video captured the disturbing events and proved that, contrary to police allegations, Sterling was not holding a gun at the time he was shot.

In May the U.S. Justice Department announced that there was not enough evidence to charge the officers involved. A state investigation is being conducted by Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry.

WI Guest Author

This correspondent is a guest contributor to The Washington Informer.

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