Alleging systemic problems within the Minneapolis Police Department, including a culture that encourages officers to protect one another at the cost of the truth, the family of Justine Damond filed a civil lawsuit in federal court July 23.
Damond, also known as Justine Ruszczyk, was shot and killed last year by former Minneapolis police officer Mohammed Noor, who is facing murder charges in a separate criminal trial set to begin in September. The lawsuit alleges Noor and his partner, Matthew Harrity, were unqualified, improperly trained, conspired to keep their body worn cameras from recording evidence of the July 2017 shooting and afterwards were protected by the department’s “blue wall of silence.”
The lawsuit was filed by Damond’s father, John Ruszcyk of Australia, on behalf of Damond’s next of kin.
“Basically, Justine saw something, she said something — like the signs at the airport tell us — and she got killed for doing so. And a year later we don’t know why that was,” said Bob Bennett, the family’s attorney, adding: “They’ll have to answer our questions soon.”
The complaint described Noor and Harrity as “inexperienced officers who appear, by their conduct, unfit for duty.”
On the night she was killed, Damond had called 911 to report a possible sexual assault near her home in the Fulton neighborhood; Harrity and Noor responded in a police squad car and Noor shot Damond when she approached the vehicle. The two were driving through the alley behind Damond’s home and told investigators they got “spooked.”
“There couldn’t be any more plainly incompetent acts than this,” Bennett said.
Although both officers were equipped with body-worn cameras, neither officer turned on his camera until after Damond was shot. Bennett alleged Noor and Harrity “worked in concert to conceal the truth surrounding the murder” of Damond by ignoring department policy that required them to activate their cameras.
Bennett also alleged that Harrity’s account of what happened that night shifted after he met with his attorney, who also represents the Minneapolis Police Federation, the officers’ union. Citing his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination, Noor has not given his account of the shooting to investigators.
Noor was fired from the department after Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman filed criminal charges against him for the shooting. Freeman, who had previously said he would avoid calling grand juries for officer-involved shootings did so before filing charges against Noor, citing a lack of cooperation from Noor’s fellow officers.
Bennett, who also represented the family of Philando Castile, a black man shot and killed by a St. Anthony police officer during a 2016 traffic stop, said he had been fighting the “blue wall” since beginning his career in the 1980s.
The family is seeking in excess of $50 million in compensatory and punitive damages. The amount was chose to “send an unmistakable message to these officers and the City of Minneapolis and its Police Department that such conduct is wrong, and will no longer be tolerated,” John Ruszczyk said in a statement provided by his attorney.
“We want the Minneapolis police culture to be reformed in such a way and to the extent necessary to stop such senseless acts from happening again and again,” he added.
The complaint alleges the Minneapolis Police Department failed to properly train its officers and was lax in enforcing its body-worn camera policy. That policy was strengthened in the aftermath of the Damond shooting, and audits have shown officer compliance with the policy has improved since last summer.
In a statement, Minneapolis City Attorney Susan Segal described Damond’s death as a tragedy. She said her office was reviewing the civil lawsuit and would respond.
“Meanwhile, serious criminal charges are currently pending against Mohamed Noor, and it’s critically important that the criminal case be allowed to proceed through trial without interference,” Segal said.