Family of woman killed by Minneapolis officer sues for $50 million

Published 10:03 pm Monday, July 23, 2018

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — The family of an Australian woman who was killed by a Minneapolis police officer last year after she called 911 to report a possible assault filed a lawsuit Monday alleging the officer conspired with his partner to hide what really happened.

The lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court alleges Justine Ruszczyk Damond’s civil rights were violated when she was shot July 15, 2017, by Officer Mohamed Noor, who has since been fired and charged with murder in Damond’s death. It claims Noor and his partner that night, Officer Matthew Harrity, conspired to cover up facts surrounding the shooting and made a conscious decision not to activate their body cameras.

“Had they done so, there would be video and audio recording of the fatal shooting of Justine, and Harrity and Noor would not be free to concoct a story in a vain attempt to insulate Noor from civil and criminal liability,” the lawsuit says.

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The lawsuit seeks $50 million, plus punitive damages. Damond’s father, John Ruszczyk, said in statement that problems within the Minneapolis Police Department are “systemic” and he wants to see reform “to the extent necessary to stop such senseless acts from happening again and again.”

The lawsuit filed by Ruszczyk names both officers, the city, and the current and former police chiefs as defendants.

City Attorney Susan Segal said in a statement that the city was reviewing the lawsuit, and that it’s important the criminal case against Noor be allowed to proceed without interference. Noor’s attorney, Thomas Plunkett, has said previously that Noor acted as he’d been trained.

The shooting of Damond, a dual Australian-U.S. citizen who had been living in Minnesota for more than two years, drew international attention, cost the police chief her job and forced major revisions to the department’s policy on body cameras. Damond’s legal name was Justine Maia Ruszczyk, but she had been using the last name of her fiance, Don Damond, professionally.

Prosecutors said the 40-year-old life coach had called 911 to report a possible sexual assault in the alley behind her home. Noor responded with Harrity, who was driving. Prosecutors say Harrity told investigators he heard a voice and a thump on the back of the squad car, and glimpsed a person’s head and shoulders outside his window.

Harrity told investigators the officers got “spooked” before Noor fired.

The officers did not turn on their body cameras until after the shooting. There was no squad camera video.

“Justine saw something, and she said something … and she got killed for doing so,” the family’s attorney, Robert Bennett, said. “And a year later, we don’t know why that was. We haven’t had any explanation, so we’re going to sue these people to find out.”

Noor hasn’t spoken with investigators, invoking his constitutional right against self-incrimination. The lawsuit alleges Harrity’s account of what happened changed after he spoke with an attorney. Bennett said both officers committed an “overt act of conspiracy” when they decided not to activate their body cameras.

The use of body cameras was low agency-wide at the time of the shooting. Shortly after Damond’s death, police Chief Medaria Arradondo changed the department’s policy to require more use of body cameras, and enforce discipline.

The lawsuit also alleges that the Police Department routinely has failed to discipline officers who changed their stories to “protect one of their own.” It notes that numerous police officers didn’t cooperate in this case.

The criminal case against Noor is pending. He has pleaded not guilty. Prosecutors say there was no evidence Noor encountered a threat that justified the use of deadly force.