Don Damond moves forward without moving away from Minneapolis

"I think justice is a process, it's not an event," Don Damond says. "And I want to be part of that process." Photo by Chris Juhn

Don Damond sold his Washburn Avenue house in 2018. It had become too painful to walk the alley at 11:39 p.m. every Saturday and light a candle on the spot where a Minneapolis police officer shot and killed his fiancee, Justine. But although every glimpse of a squad car is difficult, Damond is still living two miles away in Southwest Minneapolis so he can advocate for police reform  as a constituent of the city. 

“I want to make sure I still have a voice to make the changes that I think are necessary,” Damond said in a June 28 interview, adding that Justine lived for the transformation and evolution of people. “I think that her legacy is that: What can we change in policing as a result of this?”

Don Damond installed a memorial bench at Minnehaha Creek near 54th & Xerxes. “It’s a beautiful spot for me,” Damond says. “I wanted to have something symbolic that represents our love, and our relationship, as opposed to the spot where she died.” Photo by Chris Juhn

Former officer Mohamed Noor was sentenced to 12 1/2 years in prison after a jury found him guilty of third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. In May, the City of Minneapolis settled with the Ruszczyk family for $20 million. Damond, who was awarded $1 million, said he had no plans for the settlement to share at this time.  

Noor was the first Minnesota police officer ever convicted for an on-duty fatal shooting, according to the Star Tribune. But for Damond, justice is not yet served. 

“I think justice is a process, it’s not an event,” he said. “And I want to be part of that process.”

Damond attended a day of cadet training in February. Sitting with a small group, he listened to one young cadet who recently experienced his first dead on arrival (DOA) incident in field training. Another had already seen 10 DOA cases. One cadet was stuck in an apartment at a scene with a cadaver— the smell was so bad he had to run out to his car and spray himself with cologne, the cadet said.

“These guys aren’t even officers yet,” Damond said. “There’s no trauma-informed strategies in the department to be able to know how to navigate that, what to do with that, other than compartmentalize it, spray cologne on your system. And then we expect these guys to go out and meet our communities at their best.”

Shortly after Medaria Arradondo became police chief, Damond started sending him articles on police reform related to mindfulness, meditation and trauma-informed strategies. That’s what Justine taught, he said. She was working on a meditation course when she died.

At a community forum in 2018, Arradondo said that in years past, officers were expected to shrug off traumatic experiences and “suck it up and get back out there on the next call.” Since the shooting, police said, the department has increased supervisor check-ins and started offering yoga at the 5th Precinct. And this fall, officers will undergo training in mindfulness, trauma and breathwork to calm the system, Damond said. 

Unmanaged fear and stress can result in out-of-control reactions for everyone, Damond said.

“The difference is, we don’t carry guns,” he said.

Brain imaging suggests that practicing mindfulness can lead to modest changes in brain structure and neural function, comparable to learning to play an instrument, according to a 2017 meta-analysis of mindfulness research published in the journal Perspectives on Psychological Science. Some studies show the practice may reduce stress and boost attention to the present moment. The 2017 survey cautioned that mindfulness is challenging to study, however, and requires more research with attention to factors like the placebo effect, a meditator’s experience level and a clear definition of what mindfulness means. 

Damond said that if we’re aware of our emotional and mental states, we can manage them. He pointed to a recent New York Times story about mindfulness training “inching” into the military, with techniques that focus and calm the mind to avoid overreacting to sudden movements or surges of information from a device. 

“I knew that you wouldn’t shoot somebody unless you were scared. I didn’t learn anything in that courtroom, after all the evidence, all the body camera footage, that I didn’t know from day one,” Damond said. “That was the complete crux and the complete core of why this happened — because somebody was afraid.” 

‘I felt fear’

Justine Ruszczyk Damond called police on July 15, 2017, when she heard sex noises and thought she heard a woman yell for help. Responding to the call, officer Matthew Harrity drove down the alley with Noor, shining a spotlight to look for people, Harrity later told investigators. Finding nothing, the officers prepared to respond to another call when Harrity said he was startled by a muffled voice, a thump somewhere behind him on the squad and a person about two feet away. Harrity said he unholstered his gun, then saw a flash and Noor’s extended arm next to him.

“The moment I pulled the trigger, I felt fear,” Noor said in a statement in court, explaining that he thought he was protecting his partner’s life. “When I walked around, I saw Ms. Ruszczyk dying on the ground, I felt horror.”

Noor said in court that he’s wished for two years that he could sit down with Damond to apologize, explain what happened and share his condolences. Serving as an officer had been the most rewarding thing he’d ever done, he said. 

Noor’s friends and family wrote about Noor’s character in letters to the court. While briefly working as a rental manager, Noor went beyond his job duties to find temporary housing for an evicted resident, according to his brother-in-law Hassan Nurie. When Nurie urged him to consider a career in rental management, Noor insisted on becoming a police officer, where he could help more people. Fadumo Mohamed Yahye wrote of Noor’s kindness during her car accident, when he found a Somali-speaking driver to tow the car and take her home. Coach Ahmed wrote about Noor volunteering with youth at the West Bank Athletic Club and others wrote about Noor’s 8-year-old son.

“I caused this tragedy, and it is my burden,” Noor said in a court statement. “I wish, though, that I could relieve that burden others feel from the loss that I caused. I cannot, and that is a troubling reality for me. I will think about Ms. Ruszczyk and her family forever. The only thing I can do is try to live my life in a good way going forward.”

Damond said he is not considering meeting with Noor at the moment. He said it’s hard to imagine that Noor received proper training in de-escalation, or to understand how he could have acted so far outside such training. In this case, he said, there was zero assessment of a threat.

“There’s no words said, there’s no, ‘Get your hands up,’ there’s no command saying, ‘Back up.’ Nothing said. Just shoot and then ask questions,” he said.

Damond was surprised to hear Harrity say in court that he perceives everyone as a threat until they are no longer a threat. That state of mind is a fearful survival mode, Damond said.

“You’re not going to meet the community in a positive way,” he said.

‘Fully seen’

Shortly before Noor’s sentencing, Damond asked Arradondo and Mayor Jacob Frey for a complete case review that yields a plan to prevent something like this from ever happening again. The Minneapolis Police Department said the Internal Affairs division is currently reviewing the case.

“Policing in Minneapolis was on display in that court case. I think the culture was on display, I think the training was on display, I believe the leadership was on display, or lack thereof. I believe that it all was there to be seen. Fully seen. You can’t change something until you really see it,” he said.

Don Damond attended a rally in July 2017 with Valerie Castile, mother of Philando Castile, who was killed by police during a traffic stop in 2016. Photo by Chris Juhn

Damond recently attended a three-year memorial for Philando Castile, a black man who was shot and killed by a St. Anthony officer during a traffic stop in 2016. He’s in contact with Valerie Castile, Philando’s mother, and he’s in regular contact with friends at Justice for Justine, a social justice advocacy group that has emphasized how police violence disproportionately impacts people of color,  although Damond said he doesn’t work closely with the group.

 “It’s not a black or white issue, it’s a blue issue,” Damond said.

He hopes Minneapolis follows the example of Toronto, which overhauled the way police meet people in crisis, operating under the premise that police should see zero deaths in public interaction. Toronto’s independent review culminated in 84 recommendations that are tracked through implementation. 

“I’ll keep asking for that until I see that happen. I won’t stop,” Damond said. “As a community, we should all expect a full account of what happened. … It doesn’t feel like an obligation, it feels like I’m compelled to do this. This is about Justine.”

‘Love is never lost’

On July 15, Damond might ask a few friends to visit a bench along Minnehaha Creek he dedicated in her honor, inscribed with the words: “Love is never lost.” 

“It’s a beautiful spot for me. I wanted to have something symbolic that represents our love, and our relationship, as opposed to the spot where she died,” he said. 

Photo by Chris Juhn

The bench commemorates a moment from Aug. 5, 2014. As Damond walked down Washburn, he knew this was it — he was going to tell Justine how he felt about her. He came to the end of the street, walked down to the creek and sat on a swing north of 54th Street and east of Xerxes Avenue, a place he had never been before.  

“That was the spot where I first told her that I loved her,” he said. 

Damond occasionally visits the bench, a quiet oasis in the middle of a busy city. As part of their meditation practice, Damond and Justine acknowledged their feelings without judging or reacting, saying: “This is how it is now.”

“The grief is just expressed love,” he said. “She still lives in my heart, she really does.”

Now that the trial is over, he said there is space to move forward.

“I don’t think you move on from this. I think you just move forward, carrying it. I guess my hope is that we’ll look back five, 10 years from now and say these [changes] happened because of Justine’s legacy. … I’ll keep working for those.”