Racism, More than the Pursuit of Justice, Fuels Charges Against Officer Noor
As human rights’ activists and advocates of community policing, we condemn violence by police officers and the special protections, aka Police Bill of Rights, they are afforded by the state. We are also critical of the racial inequity and the racialized legal response that emerged after the tragic shooting of Justine Ruszczyk by police officer Mohamed Noor. We urge readers to review this critical 150-year-analysis of MPD policing, which demonstrates the need to re-imagine an equitable and just alternative.
What happens when the victim of police violence is a blonde, white yoga instructor versus when the victim is a Black man who works at Saint Paul Public Schools, and was shot and killed in front of his partner and her toddler? Or when the victim is a Black man who lives in North Minneapolis? What if the police officer is white? And when he is Black? As we have seen in recent police shootings, the racial background of the victim plays a vital role in how justice is pursued, if at all.
This is exactly what happened last summer when Justine Ruszczyk was shot and killed by Mohamed Noor, a Minneapolis Police Department officer. Officer Noor, who is Black, Muslim, and an immigrant from Somalia, was charged with third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. While none of these characteristics should have any bearing on ones’ right to live or what justice looks like for them and their families, the reality confirms that – even in death – white privilege and anti-Blackness thrive.
Everything about this case reeks of anti-racism, xenophobia, and Islamophobia. Charging a Somali-American due to fears of white outrage or the victim’s sacred whiteness points to racial inequities in our flawed criminal justice system.
Consider these shocking discrepancies:
- In most police shootings, prosecutors explain that an officer is called to respond to a crime scene and thus cannot “intend” to kill and that their use of force was within the scope of objective reasonability (read more in this “Washington Post” article). However, Noor is an exception and gets an exaggerated murder charge assuming an intent to kill. Making a case for murder requires demonstrating subjective force on the grounds of racial or religious bias. Only now, when the perpetrator is Black and Muslim are prosecutors charging an officer with murder. White officers are rarely charged with killing civilians, and, when they are, the charges are typically reckless discharge of a firearm and second-degree manslaughter. In fact, just a year before this shooting, two police officers were not charged at all in the shooting of North Minneapolis resident, Jamar Clark. The officers, who killed Clark, Mark Ringgenberg, and Dustin Schwarze, are still serving in the Minneapolis Police Department. Moreover, officer Jeronimo Yanez, who killed Philando Castile, received manslaughter two and reckless discharge of a firearm.
Somali officers not on the scene of the shooting, some of whom have never met Noor and/or work in other cities, were subpoenaed by Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman to speak on the situation, in a move labeled “ill-conceived.” This not only suggests a ‘Somali conspiracy,’ but it ignorantly assumes these officers knew something based on their ethnicity and not as actual witnesses of the crime.
The Minneapolis Police Union failed to make a statement supporting its own immediately following the incident, an unusual move in the era of #BlueLivesMatter. More than two months later, the Police Union President Bob Kroll wrote an op-ed meant to support Noor, which read more like a petty attempt to take down Freeman.
Not long after the tragic shooting of Ruszczyk, then Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges said, “I've lost confidence in the Chief's ability to lead us further," and Chief Janeé Harteau was forced to resign. Several police officers have shot and killed Black residents of Minneapolis, so it is puzzling that the death of a white woman at the hands of a Black officer was the tipping point for change.
Guilty from the Start
City officials, MPD leadership, and the legal community scrambled to condemn Noor from the start:
- Noor was described as a murderer while Yanez “was a good cop who panicked.”
Minneapolis Police Chief Harteau, with only a preliminary review and not a full investigation, distanced her department from Noor and identified her sympathy with Ruszczyk. However, in the shooting of Clark, a concerted effort was made by both Harteau and Freeman to show Clark was the aggressor and not the police. Chief Harteau said, “officer Mohamed Noor's actions the night he shot and killed Justine Ruszczyk run contrary to Minneapolis police training and expectations. Justine didn't have to die.’”
According to the Star Tribune, Freeman said, “I’m saddened by the death of this fine young woman...it didn’t have to happen — it shouldn’t have happened.”
The Somali American Police Association was not surprised by Freeman’s decision, which they say is racially motivated. “Freeman made his intentions clear… long before the press conference detailing his decision and the completion of the BCA investigation.”
In their public statement, the association expressed concern that Noor was a sacrificial lamb. The officers are not wrong. From his first public comment to the charges, Freeman used racial undertones in describing Noor. Moreover, Freeman inappropriately referred to the charges against Noor as “a big Christmas gift.”
As Black people too often we mourn Black death at the hands of white officers. Freeman has not shared the same compassion for Black victims of police violence. Freeman was eager to declare that Jamar Clark wanted to die and confidently quoted reports from the officers who killed Clark as objective truth. These reports said Clark had a “thousand-yard stare” and that he said, “I am ready to die.” This demonization of Black victims and rush to deem a Black officer guilty isn’t exclusive to Freeman, it’s reflected throughout the media.
Twin Cities Media Advance Racial Narratives
In a statement to the press, Ruszczyk’s attorney describes her as ‘the most innocent victim.’ Were other victims of police violence like Clark, Castile, Tamir Rice, Trayvon Martin, and Korryn Gaines not innocent?
Media reports on Ruszczyk paint her southwest Minneapolis neighborhood as one where crime doesn’t happen. It’s a place where, as Hannah Covington and Randy Furst of the Star Tribune assert: “...neighbors help each other find lost pets. It’s where tidy yards are filled with flower beds and children pedal their tricycles and amble down sidewalks.”
In fact, the coverage of Ruszczyk’s tragic death models what all reporters and media outlets should do with victims of police violence. They did not use her immigration status to justify the bullet, dig into her background to show a checkered past, or use poor lighting and unflattering pictures to elicit a visceral reaction. Instead, readers were shown her bright smile, told about her kindness, and learned about her volunteer endeavors. They were given a chance to relate to her. We got a sense of the loss her son, fiancé, and other loved ones felt.
Simply change the neighborhood and victim (variables that shouldn’t matter) for an entirely different outcome: premeditated murder versus a day on the job. Our legal system continues to demonstrate institutionalized racism when a person’s zip code or race determines their worthiness of justice or another’s guilt.