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Ruszczyk shooting led to scrutiny and shakeup in Minneapolis

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Mohamed Noor with his attorneys Peter Wold and Thomas Plunkett.
Former Minneapolis police officer Mohamed Noor, center, enters the Hennepin County Government Center with his attorneys Peter Wold, left, and Thomas Plunkett on Monday.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Just hours after Justine Ruszczyk was shot and killed by a Minneapolis police officer, her fiance's son, Zach Damond, spoke into a camera held by an activist.  

"My mom is dead because a police officer shot her for reasons that I don't know," he said. "And I demand answers." 

Ruszczyk was shot to death by a Minneapolis police officer in 2017 after she called 911 to report what she thought was an assault near her home. That former officer, Mohamed Noor, is on trial this week on murder and manslaughter charges.

Ruszczyk's family members weren't the only ones demanding accountability. The tragic killing invited scrutiny from city leaders and led to almost immediate policy and personnel changes at City Hall. People lost their jobs. The police department adopted stricter rules on body cameras. 

But some community members are calling for even bigger reforms.

Shakeup in the Minneapolis Police Department

Then-police Chief Janee Harteau was vacationing in Colorado when Ruszczyk, a native of Australia, was slain outside her Minneapolis home. When Harteau finally appeared before the public days later, she said the shooting was uncalled for.  

"Justine didn't have to die," Harteau said. "I want to assure Justine's family, our community and those in Australia that I will do everything in my power to make sure due process is followed and justice is served."

A photograph of Justine Ruszczyk surrounded with colored roses
A photograph of Justine Ruszczyk surrounded with colored roses and other arrangements sat on a stage at Lake Harriet for her memorial in 2017.
Maria Cardona | MPR News 2017

  But Harteau didn't get a chance to follow through on that promise. The next day, Mayor Betsy Hodges asked her to resign, saying she had lost confidence in the chief's ability to lead.

  The incident on July 15, 2017, was another source of trauma for a city that hadn't healed from previous police shootings. The 2015 shooting death of Jamar Clark led to an occupation of the street outside the city's 4th Precinct. 

Hodges also faced heat after Ruszczyk's death. 

Protesters chanting "Bye, bye, Betsy!" stormed a press conference she held to announce a new acting chief, Medaria Arradondo, and policy changes designed to hold police officers accountable. 

Hodges declined an interview request for this story, and Harteau, who no longer lives in the state, was not available for an interview. 

Body camera program scrutinized

When Ruszczyk was killed, two years after Clark was shot, both officers Mohamed Noor and Matthew Harrity were outfitted with body cameras. They just weren't recording when Noor fired his weapon. 

Minneapolis City Council Member Linea Palmisano represents the ward where Ruszczyk was killed. Body cameras are meant to capture interactions between police and the public. Palmisano said council members realized after Ruszczyk's death that having officers outfitted with body cameras alone wouldn't lead to change. 

"It doesn't mean anything if it's not on when it's supposed to be on," she said in a recent interview.  

City officials pushed to make the guidelines on body cameras clearer. Days after the shooting, Palmisano and Hodges stood behind the new police chief, Arradondo, to make the announcement. The officers were now required to activate the body cams at any dispatched call, any traffic stop and any adversarial situation. 

But even after the policy change, a city audit revealed how seldom police officers were activating their body cameras. The report found that officers were out of compliance with the guidelines about half the time. Officers also routinely miscategorized the videos and would turn them off without giving a reason. 

Palmisano said it was after that first audit — released two months after Ruszczyk's death — that the council started to examine exactly what was going wrong with the body camera program.

"That's when we just went hard and fast," Palmisano said.

Just this February the council received another audit. Body cameras were now being used about 90 percent of the time they were required, which meant police officers were turning on their cameras in all types of events.

The audit also showed that 66 officers in the department had been slow to adopt the cameras. In cases where officers ignore the policy, the department will coach them and possibly discipline them. Palmisano said the goal is for officers to comply with the policy 100 percent of the time.

Mohamed Noor and his attorneys are surrounded by members of the media.
Mohamed Noor and his attorneys are surrounded by members of the media as they enter the Hennepin County Government Center Monday.
Evan Frost | MPR News

"It's about this whole system and using this whole tool better," Palmisano said. "That is a small thing to work on contributing to policing, but it's an important thing."

The Minneapolis police union has helped put together the city's body camera policy since the start. Police Officers of Minneapolis Federation President Lt. Bob Kroll said some old-timers have had to change how they do things. But there has been an upside for the police, too. 

Partly based on body camera footage, prosecutors decided not to charge officers in the deaths of Thurman Blevins and Travis Jordan, Kroll said. 

"It takes out the he-said, she-said and potentially saved officers a lot of legal difficulty and potentially the city lot of money," Kroll said. 

Culture shift

Noor is the second police officer in Minnesota to be charged in an on-duty killing and the first to face murder charges. Kroll said recent prosecutions of police officers have changed how officers feel about, and maybe even do, their jobs. 

"Sadly the overwhelming fear of officers these days is not if they're going to make it home at the end of their shift alive," Kroll said. "It's if they're going to be indicted, if they're going to be sued, if they're going to go through the internal affairs process, if their names are going to be in the paper."

Kroll said he believes that what he calls the "anti-police climate" in the country has turned a corner. 

The big protests about police aren't happening as often as they were after Jamar Clark or Philando Castile were killed. But in Minneapolis there's a more focused movement. Activists with a group called Reclaim the Block have pushed the city to shift funding from the police department to community programs. 

In November, the City Council voted to move about $1 million dollars from the police department to violence prevention. 

Activist Tony Williams said after the vote that the funding shift was a step toward thinking about public safety in terms of more than just enforcement.

"Not public safety for the rich, powerful and white at the expense of community members of color, trans community members, indigenous community members and other folks who are too often negatively impacted by the brutality and racism of the Minneapolis Police Department," Williams said. 

Mayor Jacob Frey, who unseated Hodges in the last election, has vowed to change the police culture in the department in partnership with Arradondo.

Part of that culture change, Frey said, is additional de-escalation and bias training for officers. The department has also created wellness programs for officers, even yoga. 

"I want to shift how people interact with our police force and shift how our police force interacts with people," Frey said. "I don't want every interaction be the culmination of some sort of bad event."

A fresh memorial for Justine Ruszczyk sits at the end of the alley
A memorial for Justine Ruszczyk sat at the end of the alley where she was killed in southwest Minneapolis in March 2018.
Evan Frost | MPR News 2018

Frey hopes providing support for officers and transparency for citizens will help rebuild trust between them.

"I want those relationships to be instilled from the beginning," Frey said, "so that when a difficult event does arise, you have a foundational relationship that allows for good decisions to be made by officers and positive interactions to happen between them and the community." 

A spokesperson for Arradondo said he was not available for an interview before publication. 

Legislature considers changes to prosecutions

After Ruszczyk's death, the Hennepin County Attorney's Office ran into difficulties convincing some Minneapolis police officers that they should cooperate with the investigation.

"Many officers cooperated and came forward when we asked. But some did not," Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman later said.    

Freeman convened a grand jury as an investigative tool and to compel officers to say what they know.  

The Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension now investigates most high-profile police shootings at the request of local law enforcement agencies. Individual county attorneys are tasked with deciding whether to convene grand juries, issue charging decisions themselves or ask other counties to take over the case. 

The difficulties faced by county attorneys when deciding whether to prosecute police officers, and how they should be investigated, have spurred some lawmakers to suggest one central agency should be responsible for handling all fatal police shootings across the state. 

Jeremiah Ellison protested at the 4th Precinct before he was elected to the Minneapolis City Council. He said there have been some improvements in how city government interacts with the police force, including the audits of body camera usage, as well as new leadership. And yet he said the city still needs to develop systems to hold not only police officers accountable, but elected officials. 

   "We've got to have a system that works no matter who the individuals in power are, and right now right now we don't have that," Ellison said. 

Some see Noor's trial as a sign that officers are finally being held accountable. But, Todd Schuman, a neighbor of Justine Ruszczyk, said he's sees the trial as only the beginning.

"If we don't change the way policing is done in this city and in our country, then there will be no justice for Justine or anyone," Schuman said.