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Minnesota officer says he fatally shot unarmed woman to save partner's life

In tearful testimony, Mohamed Noor said that if he had known something like this would happen, "I would never have become a cop."
Image: Mohamed Noor
Former Minneapolis police officer Mohamed Noor, from right, with attorneys Peter Wold, from center, and Thomas Plunkett, from left, walks out of the the Hennepin County Government Center, in Minneapolis on April 25, 2019.Brian Peterson / Star Tribune via AP

MINNEAPOLIS — A former Minneapolis police officer on trial in the fatal shooting of an unarmed woman testified Thursday that he saw fear in his partner's eyes, then saw a woman in a pink shirt with blond hair appear at the partner's window and raise her right arm before he fired his gun "to stop the threat."

Mohamed Noor refused to talk to investigators after the July 2017 shooting of Justine Ruszczyk Damond, a dual citizen of the U.S. and Australia, making his testimony his first public statements since her death.

Damond had called 911 minutes earlier to report a possible sexual assault behind her home and was shot as she approached Noor's squad car after he and his partner had rolled down her alley looking for evidence of a woman in distress.

Image: Justine Ruszczyk
Justine RuszczykFacebook

Noor testified that he fired to stop what he thought was a threat to his partner, Matthew Harrity, after Noor heard a loud bang on the driver's side of the squad car. Noor said he didn't fear for his partner's life when he heard the bang, but did afterward when Harrity yelled "Oh Jesus!" and went for his weapon. Noor said Harrity was having difficulty pulling his gun from his holster.

Noor said he pressed his left arm over Harrity's chest, and saw a woman in a pink shirt with blond hair outside Harrity's driver's side window. Noor said the woman raised her right arm — and he made a split-second decision.

"I fired one shot," he said, later adding: "My intent was to stop the threat and save my partner's life."

When he realized he had shot an innocent woman, Noor said, "I felt like my whole world came crashing down."

"I couldn't breathe," said Noor, who described feeling great pain.

He began crying and said that if he had known something like this would happen, "I would never have become a cop."

Noor's attorney, Tom Plunkett, asked: "Would you have discharged your weapon that evening if you were not concerned for your safety and your partner's safety?" Noor said he would not.

Prosecutor Amy Sweasy pounced on that during her cross-examination, asking Noor if he believed "concern" was enough to fire his weapon. Noor said it was when looking at all the circumstances and to protect him himself and Harrity from death or great bodily harm.

Sweasy also attacked Noor for making a quick decision without being able to see Damond's hands, or whether she was carrying a weapon or a cellphone.

Noor testified that he had been Harrity's partner since December 2016, and the pair had nearly 400 hours on the job together. He said the partner relationship is "like a marriage" and he knew Harrity well enough to know when his partner was terrified.

Earlier Thursday, Noor described the unorthodox path he took to becoming an officer — he was working as a pharmaceutical analyst before deciding to switch careers — and then detailed his 29-week cadet training in 2015.

Noor was fired from the force soon after being charged.

His attorneys have said he feared an ambush, and Noor testified about "counter-ambush" training that included scenarios such as two officers in a squad car, doing routine tasks, and an instructor yelling "Threat!" The officers had to make a quick decision about whether to shoot, Noor said.

"Action is better than reaction," Noor said. "If you're reacting, that means it's too late ... to protect yourself. ... You die."

Noor described another training exercise where he was sent to a location, heard gunshots and instead of assessing the threat, he ran toward it. An instructor shot him with a paintball gun, he said.

"So the point is if you don't do your job correctly, you'll get killed," Plunkett said.

"Yes sir," Noor answered.

The death of Damond, a 40-year-old life coach who was engaged to be married a month after her death, sparked anger and disbelief in both the U.S. and Australia, cost Minneapolis' police chief her job and contributed to the electoral defeat of the city's mayor a few months later.

Prosecutors have questioned the supposed noise, presumably from Damond slapping the car as she approached, by noting that investigators didn't find forensic evidence of Damond's fingerprints on the car. They also questioned the timing of Harrity's first mention of the thump — not the night of the shooting, but a few days later, as he was being interviewed by state investigators.

Neither officer had a body camera running when Damond was shot, something Harrity blamed on what he called a vague policy that didn't require it. The department toughened the policy after Damond's death to require that the cameras be turned on when responding to a call.

Damond was white. Noor, 33, is a Somali American whose hiring two years before the shooting was celebrated by Minneapolis leaders as a sign of a diversifying police force in a city with a large population of Somali immigrants.

Noor testified earlier Thursday about immigrating from Somalia to the U.S., where he became a citizen in 1999. He lived first in Chicago, then moved to Minneapolis, where he said he fell in love with the city.

He said he became a police officer because he "wanted to serve."