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Testimony at Noor trial highlights tensions between police, prosecutors

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This sketch shows prosecuting attorneys during ex-cop Noor's trial.
This sketch shows prosecuting attorneys inside the courtroom during the trial of former Minneapolis police officer Mohamed Noor on April 10, 2019.
Cedric Hohnstadt for MPR News

The Minneapolis police officers who responded to the fatal shooting of Justine Ruszczyk have faced some tough questions in the trial of the former officer who pulled the trigger. The courtroom exchanges this week highlighted unusual tensions between police and prosecutors.

Mohamed Noor is charged with murder and manslaughter in the 2017 incident.   

When Assistant Hennepin County Attorney Amy Sweasy began questioning Minneapolis police Sgt. Shannon Barnette on Tuesday it shattered all assumptions about police and prosecutors being on the same team.

On the night Noor shot Ruszczyk, Barnette — Noor's supervisor — was the incident commander. 

Noor's squad car apparently was not preserved as evidence. At least three officers went inside. One testified that he'd have stayed away had he been told Noor had fired from the passenger's seat.

"Get some officers to create a perimeter. And then everybody who came near that scene that night needed to make a detailed written statement as to what they did, what they saw, who they contacted," said retired Minneapolis police officer Mike Quinn, who trains cops and has written about law enforcement accountability.

Witnesses also said Barnette had no evidence that Noor and his partner Matthew Harrity heard a thump on the back of their squad car before Noor fired his gun. On the witness stand, she said she may have just assumed there had been a noise based on Harrity's comments. Defense attorneys say the officers were startled by the noise, and believed that they were in danger.

To convict Noor on any of the three counts, prosecutors must convince jurors his actions were something a reasonable officer would never have done in the same circumstances. 

Retired Minneapolis police officer Mike Quinn.
Retired Minneapolis police officer Mike Quinn at his home on Wednesday.
Matt Sepic | MPR News

Prosecutors also are interrogating Noor's fellow officers. They played three videos from Barnette's body camera. In one, she tells an approaching officer "I'm on," and promptly switches the device off. When Sweasy asked Barnette why she stopped recording, Barnette said she couldn't answer.

Barnette also turned her body camera off while talking to Noor, capturing just a short video of him with no audio, testifying that she believed it was a "private conversation."

Barnette is among 20 officers who declined to cooperate with the investigation. They were forced to after receiving grand jury subpoenas last year.

Quinn said the Noor trial has made public the longstanding code of silence common in many police departments.

"Minneapolis has traditionally thrown up that blue wall to protect their own regardless of the circumstances," he said.

Quinn said the tense back and forth in court between officers and prosecutors could damage the department's relationship with the Hennepin County Attorney's Office. Neither is commenting on the case.

Former Ramsey County Attorney Susan Gaertner, now in private practice, is confident the two departments will continue to work together on the public's behalf.

"You can have both those thoughts at the same time. You can have the respect for the institution as a whole, the force as a whole, and still challenge individual incidents of behavior or decision-making or even policies," Gaertner said.

Hennepin County prosecutors are expected to continue their questioning of officers as Noor's trial nears the end of its third week. Among those they may call to the stand is Harrity, who sat next to Noor in the squad when Ruszczyk, also known as Justine Damond, was shot.