Did a "loud sound" prompt fatal police shooting in Minneapolis?

Investigators working on the Minneapolis police shooting released the first details of their probe late yesterday, but those will create more questions than answers. The state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, which now has jurisdiction over the case, reports that one of the two officers involved heard a loud noise just before Justine Damond approached the driver’s side of the police vehicle. That apparently prompted the officer to shoot, although that explanation is somewhat murky for another reason:

Investigators probing the death of an Australian woman who was fatally shot by Minneapolis police officers over the weekend said Tuesday that the officers were “startled by a loud sound” near their patrol car right before the shooting.

The two officers were driving through an alley near the home of Justine Damond, 40, after she called 911 late Saturday to report a possible assault, according to the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA), the state agency investigating the shooting. The officer who was driving the patrol car told investigators that right after the loud noise, Damond approached the car on his side. The officer who was in the passenger seat then fatally shot Damond through the driver’s side window, according to investigators.

The information released Tuesday marked the first account from one of the officers about what happened at 11:30 p.m. on Saturday in the upscale Minneapolis neighborhood, and it came as relatives of Damond have sharply criticized law enforcement officials for not revealing more about the shooting.

That explanation came from Officer Matthew Harrity, the first-year patrol officer who drove the car Saturday night. BCA investigators still don’t know why that would have prompted second-year officer Mohammed Noor to shoot Damond, who had no weapon and was still dressed in her pajamas. Noor has thus far refused to speak with investigators and lawyered up, a point which elicited some frustration from his assistant police chief and from the mayor of Minneapolis in a press conference yesterday afternoon:

In a Tuesday evening news conference, Mayor Betsy Hodges, Assistant Police Chief Medaria Arradondo, and City Council Member Linea Palmisano addressed reporters from around the world, saying they were still limited by the ongoing investigation.

“We do have more information, though it’s frustrating to have some of the picture but not all of it,” Hodges said. “We cannot compel Officer Noor to make a statement; I wish we could,” she said, quickly clarifying: “I wish that he would make a statement.” …

While Hodges expressed her desire that Noor would offer a statement on what happened that night, Arradondo said he would not cast judgment. “It is his right,” Arradondo said. “He has legal representation and I want to respect his right for that.”

Unfortunately for investigators, they have no one else to interview, at least for now. Police want to find a man on a bicycle who came and went immediately after the shooting to see if he can shed any light on what happened, but otherwise, the only witnesses are the two officers, and only one of them is talking. BCA acknowledged this yesterday in their presser, saying that they are pressing ahead on forensics:

Unless someone else comes forward, the BCA does not have additional interviews scheduled at this time. Forensic testing is being completed and all evidence must be examined. It is common for a county attorney to request follow-up information when reviewing a case.

In the case of a traumatic event, it’s advisable to refrain from being interrogated until one has time to recover their wits. In carry-permit training, this topic often comes up; one attorney’s business cards emphasize the point for those involved in a shooting. It’s too easy to misremember the sequence of events while in shock, and getting a good attorney to navigate the legal risks first is a must. As Arradondo says, Noor has the right to seek counsel before deciding whether to offer a statement to investigators, a right that does not get waived when taking a job as a peace officer. If Harrity is cooperating, that’s another good reason for Noor to take maximum legal precautions.

The updates from the BCA seem unlikely to resolve anything, though, and might complicate Noor’s defense. If the alleged “loud noise” prompted the shooting, then it will be more difficult to claim an accidental discharge later. A “loud noise” is not enough to justify the use of lethal force in self-defense, not for a civilian and certainly not for a peace officer, either. Just the fact that no weapon was found will lead to a presumption that no reasonable fear of life should have existed, and citing a “loud noise” as a defense will make it look more like panic in the absence of any other evidence to support a reasonable threat.  And the fact that the loud noise occurred after getting dispatched on a possible sexual assault will raise even more questions as to why neither officer activated their body cams as they rolled up.

Noor had better hope his attorneys are up for this challenge. On the basis of what’s been learned so far, they have their work cut out for them.