MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Relatives and neighbors of an Australian woman who was fatally shot by Minneapolis police over the weekend demanded answers Monday about her death, with one calling the shooting of the meditation teacher and bride-to-be “an execution.”
Details about what led to the shooting remained unclear, with authorities saying only that officers were responding to a 911 call about a possible assault when she was killed.
The woman’s family members released a statement Monday through Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, saying they “are trying to come to terms with this tragedy and to understand why this has happened.”
Minneapolis authorities have not released the woman’s name. The Star Tribune (http://strib.mn/2tZtSB2 ) identified her as Justine Damond, 40, from Sydney, Australia. The newspaper reported that she was engaged to be married and had already taken her fiance’s last name. Her maiden name was Justine Ruszczyk.
The Bureau of Criminal Apprehension released a statement Sunday saying two Minneapolis officers responded to the call late Saturday. At some point, an officer fired a gun, hitting Damond. The BCA said Monday that no weapons were found at the scene.
Local media identified the officer who fired his weapon as Mohamed Noor, who is a Somali-American.
His attorney, Tom Plunkett, released a statement to Minneapolis television station WCCO saying: “We take this seriously with great compassion for all persons who are being touched by this.” Plunkett did not return messages left by The Associated Press.
According to a city newsletter, Noor joined the police department in March 2015.
The Star Tribune, citing three people with knowledge of the shooting it did not name, said Damond had been the one to call 911 about a possible assault in the alley behind her house.
The three people said two officers pulled into the alley in a single squad car. Damond, wearing pajamas, stood at the driver’s side door and talked to the driver. The newspaper’s sources said the officer in the passenger seat shot Damond through the driver’s side door.
Police referred questions to the BCA. A spokeswoman for the agency did not return messages seeking to confirm that account. A Monday statement from the BCA said more information would be provided once the officers were interviewed.
Neighbor Joan Hargrave called the killing “an execution” and said there was no reason for a well-trained officer to see Damond as a threat.
“This is a tragedy — that someone who’s asking for help would call the police and get shot by the police,” Hargrave said.
Officials said the officers’ body cameras were not turned on and that a squad car camera did not capture the shooting. Investigators were still trying to determine whether other video exists.
It’s not clear why the officers’ body cameras were not turned on. The department’s policy allows for a range of situations in which officers are supposed to do so, including “any contact involving criminal activity” and before use of force. If a body camera is not turned on before use of force, it’s supposed to be turned on as soon as it’s safe to do so.
Once the investigation is complete, it would be up to Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman to decide whether to charge the officer.
Freeman would not comment on the broader case Monday, but said both officers likely should have turned on their body cameras as they were approached by Damond in an alley.
Police Chief Janee Harteau called the killing a “tragic death” and said she understands why the community has questions. “I’ve asked for the investigation to be expedited to provide transparency and to answer as many questions as quickly as we can,” she said.
The Fulton neighborhood where the shooting happened is a mix of middle- and upper-middle-class homes about a half-mile from city lakes that are a popular destination for residents and tourists.
Some 50 friends and neighbors gathered in a semicircle Sunday near the shooting site, with many more looking on from the sidewalk and street. Chalk hearts containing the names of some people who were victims of police violence were drawn on the driveway.
By Monday, flowers had also been left at the scene, along with a handwritten sign that asked, “Why did you shoot and kill our neighbor?”
Damond’s death is yet another high-profile police shooting in the Twin Cities area in recent years. Last year, 32-year-old Philando Castile was killed by an officer during a traffic stop in a nearby suburb after he told the officer he was armed. And in November 2015, a Minneapolis police officer shot and killed Jamar Clark during a struggle in which the officer said Clark grabbed his partner’s weapon.
Damond’s business website indicates that she relocated to Minneapolis and worked as a yoga instructor, meditation teacher and personal health and life coach.
Originally trained as a veterinarian, Damond indicted on the site that she was “most passionate about supporting individuals and organizations to discover the power and potential within their own brains and hearts.”
Damond’s mother was Australian, and she spent her formative years there, but also spent some of her early childhood in the Buffalo, New York, area, said Peter Suffoletto, a cousin of Damond’s father. Suffoletto said Damond frequently returned to New York state, and stayed with Suffoletto and his wife, Elaine, in Hamburg, New York, as recently as April.
“She was the sweetest soul that I’ve ever met,” Elaine Suffoletto said.
Peter Suffoletto added: “She was just a loving free spirit … We’re devastated, beyond devastated.”
Zach Damond, 22, said Damond was engaged to marry his father, Don Damond, in August, although she had already taken his name.
“Basically, my mom’s dead because a police officer shot her for reasons I don’t know,” Zach Damond said. “I demand answers.”
Associated Press writers Jeff Baenen, Doug Glass and Kyle Potter contributed to this report from Minneapolis. Associated Press research Rhonda Shafner contributed from New York.
This story has been corrected to show that Zach Damond is the son of the victim’s fiancé, not the victim’s son.
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