By Jeremy Griffith
The American Millennium
Don Damond, the fiance of Justine, embraces Valerie Castile, mother of Philando who was killed by a police officer during a traffic stop last year. -photo by AP
Officer Brett exited his squad car and stepped onto the curb. His partner, Mike, put the car in park and exited from the driver’s side. They both approached the target house, a two-level residence with teal green siding and a three-season porch, with their guns drawn at the low-ready, pointed at the ground for safety. Minutes before they had been operating a speed trap on the other side of town. It had been a quiet day in this sleepy, middle Minnesota lake town. In a flash, it became much more exciting and dangerous. The two young officers approached the residence with caution, responding to a dispatcher’s emergency call. A young woman was being held against her will by her boyfriend inside, and the man had a gun!
Mike and Brett had talked about strategy as they drove to the call. Brett would take the front of the house, Mike would go around the rear. Brett would take a position of cover at the front and call out to the occupants inside. He would try to calm the young man inside and start to negotiate until the Quick Response Team got there. Mike would cover the back, in case the suspect attempted to flee that way. Neither would enter the building; their instructions were to wait for QRF! Once on the ground, however, the plan fell apart as the situation drastically changed.
The woman being held, a girl of 15 or 16, saw the police officers drive up through the big pane glass in the front living room. Her boyfriend, a man of 20 years, saw them too. Risking it all, the girl bolted out of the front door and onto the porch. Her boyfriend tried to stop her, but she was too fast. She skipped a step and ran towards the officers in the front lawn, passing smoothly between them. “He’s got a gun!” she said. Brett was in front of Mike and as the girl passed by him, he positioned his body in front of hers, shielding her from her boyfriend, an angry young man who was recently discharged from the Army National Guard of Wisconsin for unsoldierly conduct. The man emerged from the house half a second later and pointed his gun.
It’s not clear if he was trying to engage the officers, or if he was trying to murder his girlfriend in an alcohol-fueled rage. What is known is that he fired, and struck Brett in the face. Brett had allowed himself to check over his shoulder, glancing at his partner and seeing that the girl was safely protected, then he turned towards the house, where he saw the man with the raised gun. He began to shout commands, but he was too late. He fell to the ground mortally wounded. Mike screamed in terror and rage, he raised his gun, but he didn’t fire. The girl and the body of his partner were in his line of fire. He let the girl pass by and watched helplessly as his partner fell to the ground in front of him. Then he started to engage the target, who quickly retreated into the protection of the house. Without firing, Mike lowered his gun again and rushed towards his partner’s side. Brett was lying face up, on his back, looking up at the sky with vacant eyes. Blood was gushing from a wound in his forehead. Mike put down his firearm and grabbed Brett’s hand. He kept calling his name, trying to keep his partner awake, comforting him.
Brett looked up, and uttered his last word, the name of his wife: Wendy!
The vignette you just read is a fictionalized account of an event that happened a few years ago in Lake City, Minnesota. No one really knows what happened, except for the people involved. Two of them are dead. The suspect killed himself during the standoff that followed. I’ve changed the names, because I don’t want to cause the families of the officers involved any more pain than they’ve already suffered. The officer who was wounded lingered for weeks in a hospital in Rochester, dying shortly before Christmas. The officer who lived, lives with the painful memory of what it was like to lose a partner and a good friend. A wife remembers her loving husband as she tries to raise three girls all on her own. This event clearly illustrates how quickly things can change in the day in the life of our law enforcement officers. In Army terms, we logisticians like to say that the plan is only good until the first shot is fired. It can be like that for our police officers, who have to balance their duty to protect and serve our citizens, catch the bad guys, and in the worst-case scenarios, defend their lives. At the end of the day, we want all our officers who protect us to go home safe to their families when their work shift is done.
The relationship we have with our officers has come into question again in Minneapolis following the death of an Australian woman Justine Damond, who was killed by a Somali police officer earlier in the week. The killing has caused a firestorm of controversy and has led to the resignation of the Minneapolis Police Chief, Janee Harteau. All the controversy is further fueled with the prosecution and acquittal of Minneapolis officer Jeronimo Yanez who shot and killed an African-American motorist last year. The relationship between residents and the police is strained, and has been for some time. Here is what we know about last week’s incident so far.
Damond called police the evening of July 16 to report what she thought might be a sexual assault happening in the alley behind her house. She also called her fiancé, who encouraged her to talk to police. Officer Matthew Harrity was driving down the alley with his partner Mohamed Noor in the passenger side. The lights were off, as were the body and dash cameras, as the officers slowly patrolled through the neighborhood, looking for potential suspects. There was a loud sound, according to testimony from Officer Harrity, after which Damond emerged from her house and approached the driver. Both men were startled by the sound, Harrity told investigators with the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA), but Noor drew his gun. Firing across his partner, Noor fatally wounded Damond in the abdomen.
The officers rendered aid, it is said, but to no avail. While Officer Harrity gave testimony to what happened to the investigators of the BCA, Noor has lawyered up, offering no explanation as to why he fired. Police experts say it’s not implausible that the officers feared an ambush following similar incidents in New York City, but is it fair to assume that the way to respond is to shoot first and ask questions later?
Harrity and Noor are under paid administrative leave as per protocol in the incident, but all the focus is on Noor. Both men reacted drastically different to the same stimuli, Noor fatally. According to the reports from the Star Tribune, some police experts wonder if the fast-track training of the rookie officer was to blame. Noor didn’t graduate with traditional law enforcement degree. He has a business degree. The 21-month rookie took an eight-month fast track course aimed at recruiting officers from different backgrounds into a force that is grossly undermanned. Experts who talked to the Star Tribune say the course focuses largely on tactics, but not strategy, neglecting crucial areas of a police officer’s education. But, is that fair? The instructors at the fast-track academy may not have advanced degrees, but presumably they are trained law enforcement officials with years of patrol experience and anecdotal tales to use as vignettes to train up new recruits. With all that experience, one would assume that eight months is enough to train up an officer. The service branches take similar time to train their private soldiers. It takes about 18-months to train an officer at many of the state and federal commissioning sources. For me, Infantry Officer’s Basic was four months long. I spent a two-years in ROTC before that. Many graduates go to Airborne School, (3 weeks) and Ranger School (9 weeks) after that. Soldiers once trained and deployed are restricted by vigorous rules of engagement. Police officers should be as well.
I really feel that piling on to the instructors at the academy is unfair, and a cheap shot by the Star Tribune. Without knowing what is in the curriculum, The Star Tribune paints the instructors with a very broad brush. I would encourage the instructors to invite bloggers and journalists in the state to come and audit some of their blocks of instruction so that the public can get an idea about how their new police candidates are being trained. Without that background, criticism of the program is just sloppy journalism.
Indeed, members of the press should ask law enforcement agencies for permission to do ride alongs, to get a feel for what it’s really like to patrol the streets. Our law enforcement leaders should bridge the gap of understanding by holding open meeting to discuss policy and training with the public. Here in Rochester, the Olmsted County Sheriff and Rochester Police Chief are doing that, scheduling a demonstration on body cameras later this week. All law enforcement agencies should do that.
With the recent shootings of dogs in Minneapolis, that agency should review its policy on how to deal with animals found in the course of normal patrol and service calls. Tactics on less lethal means of engagement should be resourced and trained. They are not always feasible for every situation, but they are a tool in the tool kit that may be being overlooked.
We don’t want our patrolmen and women whipping out their guns every time there is an incident. We also don’t want our officers to be jeopardized every time they respond to a call.
Training? Or Worldview?
Was it training, or was it vetting of potential candidates that is the problem? In a report from the Daily Telegraph, a neighbor of the Noor family paints a picture of Noor that shows that perhaps he wasn’t the most pleasant person to be around.
Chris Miller is a 49-year old African-American who drives a fork lift for a living. He lives next door to a complex where Noor’s parents and younger siblings live, and he has seen Noor there. Miller explains that Noor seems to have very little respect for kids, women and blacks he comes in contact with.
““He is extremely nervous … he is a little jumpy … he doesn’t really respect women, the least thing you say to him can set him off,” Miller said.
““He is extremely nervous … he is a little jumpy … he doesn’t really respect women, the least thing you say to him can set him off!” -Chris Miller, describing neighbor Mohamed Noor
“When they say a policeman shot an Australian lady I thought uh, oh but then when they said who it was I was like, ‘OK.’” Said Miller.
“He has little respect for women he has little respect for blacks and kids,” said Miller.
“He has an air like you just couldn’t really be around him.”
We wonder if the Somali worldview and strict adherence of the Islamic world view are the right fit for someone we want patrolling our streets and dealing with our citizens. From testimony from Miller, we find a Noor who is not a good neighbor, intolerant of kids, disrespectful of women, and not pleasant to be around.
From his record as an officer, we find that in the 21-months since he’s been hired, Noor has racked up three complaints, two of which remain open. The last one is a case where a woman complains that she was dragged off to a hospital for an involuntary mental commitment. She was released several hours later after the woman complained she had no need to be there and the officer roughed her up and put her in an arm bar.
The City of Minneapolis invested a lot of time, money and effort in hiring Noor, who had no law enforcement training previous to being hired. He was praised as a diversity hero when he was first hired. Now Minneapolis residents label him the villain. It may take even more time, effort and money to remove him from the force and make things right with the Damond family. Already it has caused a serious change in leadership in Minneapolis. The police chief has resigned and things look a little rocky for the mayor. If a charge is brought against Noor, and the case laid in front of a jury of his peers, the verdict may well be in the hands of at least a few citizens of Minneapolis who have a similar worldview as the defendant. What would an acquittal look like? Or a conviction? Either way, I foresee a lot more pain in the Cities, future as this case is being decided.
In the meantime, LE agencies should take a closer look at their policies and reach out to their communities. LE training facilities and schools should take another look at their curriculum to see if changes or a refocusing is needed. And citizens should march and talk, but not burn or destroy. At the end of the day, we are all in this together.
Our hearts and prayers go out to the Damond family and the neighborhood. No amount of analysis or discussion can lessen your grief. We are very sorry for your loss.
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Jeremy Griffith, the creator of The American Millennium Online. He is a military veteran of the Iraq War. He retired as a Captain in 2015.