Somali-American Police Officer Sentenced to 12.5 Years

MINNEAPOLIS — Mohamed Noor’s arrival as the first Somali-American officer in his Minneapolis police precinct was celebrated three years ago as a cultural bridge, a way of building trust between the police and the city’s large refugee population. The mayor even attended a welcome ceremony for him.

But on Friday, Mr. Noor, now an ex-officer and convicted murderer, was sentenced to about 12 and a half years in a Minnesota prison for the death of Justine Ruszczyk, an unarmed woman he killed while on patrol in 2017.

Far from building trust in the system, Mr. Noor’s case came to be seen by Somali-Americans as a sign of a double standard. Dozens gathered in the courthouse lobby Friday to voice displeasure with the length of Mr. Noor’s sentence, stating that they believed a white officer would have been treated differently. “Wrong Complexion For Blue Protection,” one man’s sign read.

“This case is about a black Muslim immigrant,” said Ahmednur Abdirahman, 36, who was among the protesters. “They are worried about disappointing the white community. For that reason, justice was not served today.”

Though it is rare for a police officer to be charged in a fatal on-duty shooting — Mr. Noor was the first Minnesota officer in decades convicted in such a case — the death of Ms. Ruszczyk defied easy explanation.

She was unarmed, wearing pajamas and holding nothing but a glittery cellphone. The case made international headlines, sparked protests and led to the ouster of the Minneapolis police chief. The city settled a lawsuit with her family for $20 million, among the largest ever for a police shooting in the United States.

“This was an obscene act by an agent of the state,” her father, John Ruszczyk, said, in a statement that was read aloud in court. “The killer should be held accountable. That sort of behavior is intolerable.”

Ms. Ruszczyk, who was white and had spent most of her life in Australia, called 911 twice on a summer night asking for help. When she encountered Mr. Noor in the alley behind her house, the officer fired a single, fatal shot out his cruiser’s window.

The sentence for Mr. Noor far surpassed the term of probation Mr. Noor’s lawyers sought, but it fell within state guidelines for his crimes. He was convicted by a jury in April of third-degree murder, which carried a maximum sentence of 25 years in prison, and second-degree manslaughter, which could have led to as many as 10 years in prison.

“This case has caused damage so vast and so far-flung,” said Amy Sweasy, a prosecutor.

In the courthouse lobby, where several Somali-Americans waited to hear the judge’s decision, many saw the prison term as far too harsh. Some of them noted that white police officers in Minnesota and elsewhere had killed unarmed people and gone unpunished.

“It was fear, and it was quick, and you know, it was tragedy,” said Ifrah Mubarak, who was at the courthouse and said she was a friend of the Noor family. She said she believed Mr. Noor’s race and religion influenced his treatment by the court system.

In the few other recent cases where an American police officer has been convicted of murder, they have often avoided the harshest possible sentence. Jason Van Dyke, a white former Chicago officer convicted of second-degree murder and other crimes in the death of Laquan McDonald, a black teenager who was shot 16 times, was sentenced this year to just under seven years; prosecutors had called for at least 18 years. In Balch Springs, Tex., Roy D. Oliver II, a white officer convicted of murder in the death of Jordan Edwards, who was black and 15 years old, was sentenced last year to 15 years; the prosecution was seeking at least 60 years.

Dozens of people filed letters with the court seeking leniency from Judge Kathryn L. Quaintance for Mr. Noor. In court on Friday, Mr. Noor said he shot to defend his partner. But he acknowledged the pain he had caused Ms. Ruszczyk’s family.

“These are the people I worked to serve, and I harmed them,” said Mr. Noor, who had been in custody since the guilty verdict. “For that, I apologize.”

Mr. Noor asked Judge Quaintance for leniency. “I don’t want to lose my family,” he told her. But in denying the defense’s request for a lower sentence, the judge said the law did not allow for leniency because the defendant was a good person.

The shooting of Ms. Ruszczyk had been a mystery from the start — far different from police shootings that were recorded on cellphones or squad car dashboard cameras. There was no video or audio of what had happened.

Late on the night of July 15, 2017, Ms. Ruszczyk, who was about to get married and sometimes used her fiancé’s surname, twice called 911 to report what she thought was a sexual assault in the alley behind her Minneapolis home.

Mr. Noor and his partner were sent to the area to investigate, and the shooting soon followed. It was never entirely clear how the officers and Ms. Ruszczyk had wound up crossing paths, but testimony at Mr. Noor’s trial suggested that she came outside in the darkened alley to talk to the officers, and startled them.

At his trial, Mr. Noor said he feared for his life when he saw Ms. Ruszczyk approaching his cruiser and made a split-second decision to shoot. “She could have had a weapon,” Mr. Noor said in court.

Lawyers for Mr. Noor have acknowledged that Ms. Ruszczyk in fact posed no threat. She had been holding a cellphone and standing outside a rolled-down window of the squad car when she was shot.

Mr. Noor’s lawyers said the events were a tragedy but not a crime. Prosecutors said that Mr. Noor had acted unreasonably — firing at a shadowy figure without even yelling a warning — and that it was murder.

The shooting of Ms. Ruszczyk set off outrage as far away as Australia, where she had lived for most of her life. The trial drew intense attention among Minnesota’s Somali-American residents, many of whom wondered whether Mr. Noor would be treated fairly.

And the events forced changes in the policies and leadership of the Minneapolis Police Department. The chief was forced out, and the department rewrote its body camera policy. Both Mr. Noor and his partner, Officer Matthew Harrity, had been wearing cameras that night, but neither officer had them turned on when the shooting occurred.

One group that formed after the shooting, called Justice for Justine, issued a statement Friday that called the sentence appropriate and “an integral part of bringing more accountability to our policing system.” But they said the case exposed entrenched problems in law enforcement that continued to fester in Minneapolis.

“It was not just Officer Noor on trial in this case,” they said, “but the entire justice system.”

Source: New York Times


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