‘A somber milestone’

Sorrow and calls for police reform one year after the death of Justine Damond

About 50 people gathered at a rally June 15 at 51st & Washburn. It was the same site were Justine Damond was shot and killed by a Minneapolis police officer one year earlier. Photo by Dylan Thomas

Events in Fulton over the weekend marked the anniversary of the death of Justine Damond, who in July 2017 was shot and killed by a Minneapolis police officer after calling 911 to report a possible sexual assault.

Local officials, including Mayor Jacob Frey, joined neighbors Saturday to dedicate a bench overlooking Minnehaha Creek to the memory of Damond, also known as Justine Ruszczyk, tossing pink flowers into the water. On Sunday, members of Justice for Justine were joined by other local activists in a rally at the south end of the alley behind Damond’s former 51st & Washburn home, where they again called for police reforms and an end to officer-involved shootings.

Sarah Kuhnen of Justice for Justine described the anniversary as a “somber milestone” for those who knew Damond. She described Damond’s death as a “devastating blow” to the neighborhood.

It also galvanized a group of her neighbors. Justice for Justine has met almost weekly since Damond’s death, and its members say there is an urgent need to change law enforcement practices and policies that contribute to police shootings.

“The police system is fundamentally broken, and it is hurting our entire community,” Kuhnen said.

Former Minneapolis police officer Mohamed Noor is charged with murder in Damond’s death, and his trial is scheduled to begin in late September. He and his partner on the night of the shooting, Matthew Harrity, said they got “spooked” when Damond approach their vehicle in the dark.

Kuhnen described their actions as “reckless and indefensible,” but she said the prosecution and conviction of Noor would be “only one step toward real justice for our communities,” noting a number of other people who had been injured or killed during interactions with Minnesota law enforcement officers since Damond’s death. The list included Thurman Blevins, who allegedly had a handgun when he was shot by Minneapolis police during a foot chase June 24, although witnesses at the scene dispute police accounts and say he didn’t have a gun. It also included a Chanhassen teen, Archer Amorosi, shot and killed by Carver County sheriff’s deputies who were called to his house July 13.

“Every one of these stories has a grieving family and community just like ours,” Kuhnen said.

Kuhnen. Photo by Dylan Thomas
Kuhnen. Photo by Dylan Thomas

Fulton resident Bethany Bradley said her “privilege” allowed her to look away from the trauma of police shootings — until Damond, a woman who looked like her, was killed.

“It was then that this community realized there are no safe communities,” Bradley said.

She called for an end to the practice of having the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension in charge of investigating most police-involved shootings, citing their close ties to members of local police and sheriff’s departments. She also urged those at the rally to elect leaders who will hold police accountable.

“We need change, and we need leaders who are willing to step into the discomfort of creating that change,” Bradley said. “There is no space left for the middle ground.”

Nekima Levy-Pounds, the activist, attorney and 2017 Minneapolis mayoral candidate, said the incidents leave many people with the same question: “Who’s next?”

Recalling that it seemed “so hard to get the rest of the city to care” when the shooting of Jamar Clark prompted an 18-day protest and occupation of the Fourth Precinct in 2015, Levy-Pounds said Damond’s death awoke a new, powerful Minneapolis constituency to the issue of police violence. Real change, she added, requires “all hands on deck.”

It was a sentiment echoed by other speakers, including longtime activist Mel Reeves, who called on those at the rally to show up in support for Blevins and his family. A funeral was held for 31-year-old Blevins the day before the Justice for Justine rally.

“The only way we beat this is together,” added John Thompson, a close friend of Philando Castile, who was shot and killed by a St. Anthony police officer during a July 2016 traffic stop.

Like Levy-Pounds, Thompson said it would have been hard for him to believe, just a few years ago, that events would bind black activists and concerned members of a largely white Southwest Minneapolis neighborhood in a common cause.

“We are bonded,” he said, urging those outraged by Damond’s death to channel their anger into the work of activism.

Michelle Gross, president of Communities United Against Police Brutality, said growing public awareness off the issue has prompted some change, including new training programs for officers and amended use-of-force policies. Both the Minneapolis and St. Paul police departments are taking steps to reinvigorate their disciplinary policies, Gross added.

But she said more needed to be done to eliminate so-called “fear-based” officer training programs that teach officers to adopt a “warrior mentality.” Officers in several recent shootings were reportedly exposed to the trainings, including the Minneapolis officers who shot Blevins.

Jess Sundin of the Twin Cities Coalition for Justice 4 Jamar, a group formed to campaign for the prosecution of the officers that shot Clark, agreed with Gross that activism was beginning to make a difference in the Twin Cities.

Sundin faulted Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman for declining to charge the officers in the Clark case, but she noted that Freeman responded to public scrutiny of his decision by releasing most of the evidence reviewed by prosecutors. While it was the wrong decision, she said, “at least it was open.”

A bench near Minnehaha Creek was dedicated to Damond's memory. Photo by Dylan Thomas
A bench near Minnehaha Creek was dedicated to Damond’s memory. Photo by Dylan Thomas