Janee Harteau’s firing in Minneapolis shows that whatever procedures we have for body cameras, or anything else in place to prevent a shoot-first policy, standard procedure after a shooting is for police departments to close up and hunker down. If Harteau had returned from her backpacking trip immediately – last Sunday – armed with full information about what happened at Justine Damond’s house, she might still have a job.
Instead, she withheld Officer Noor’s name. She completed her backpacking trip, to spend four more days on the trail. When she returned, she gave a press conference where the best she could say was, Justine Damond “didn’t have to die.” Meantime, the prime minister of Australia says, in astonishment, to the world: what happened here? How could someone who calls 911 be shot – from inside the car, in the abdomen – by an officer who responds to her call? Even the writer of the most violent television crime procedural could not imagine something so bloody or extraordinary.
So Damond’s family in Australia waits for information, while Harteau finishes up her camping trip. After her press conference five days later, they are still waiting. After her resignation a week later, they still do not have basic information. I predicted we would all forget about this murder after a week, but I did not take two things into account. First, Minneapolis mayor Betsy Hodges might fire Harteau. Second, the Australian government would do well to keep the issue in front of us, and the rest of the world. If we need our friends in Sydney to school us in proper policing, let it be done.
Instead of proper policing, we have a supposedly progressive, modern midwestern city – Minneapolis – showing police departments all over the world how to mishandle routine policing: if you feel you are in danger, shoot. If you hear a loud noise, shoot. If you see something move in the dark, shoot. Just as Officer Noor panics and jumps to conclusions in his cruiser, we’re left to draw our own conclusions, because the Minneapolis police department refuses to release pertinent information.
Without doubt, Minnesota’s Bureau of Criminal Apprehension cannot force Noor to talk with them, nor under the Fifth Amendment can anyone force Noor to incriminate himself. Nothing, however, prevents the Minneapolis police department from firing him, and nothing prevents the district attorney from preparing charges against him. Noor has already indicated, through his attorney, that he will not cooperate with an investigation. So the police department does not lose anything if it places him outside the pale, and opens the only other avenue it has to gather information: indictment and trial.
If the charges are mistaken, the district attorney can drop them. If the firing is mistaken, the department can rehire him. Significant is everyone’s dissatisfaction with standard procedure: an officer who panics is placed on administrative leave with pay, and nothing else happens except a press conference where the police chief says the victim didn’t have to die. She acknowledges that Noor acted inappropriately, not according to procedure. She further acknowledges the officers should have had their cameras on. I have another suggestion: when a police car’s engine is on, audio recording in the car is on. Do not expect officers to turn on cameras when they are in a tense situation.
Reporters in the Damond case refer to police training. Yes, training is important, but even more so is police culture. Police have developed a culture of self-protection and aggressiveness that endangers people like Justine Damond. Most inner city residents who call 911 would not simply walk up to a police car in the dark, with a cell phone that looks like a gun in hand. The resident might not call 911 in the first place, for fear of what police might do to him. Justine was from another country, where citizens don’t usually have guns, and police don’t reach for them first thing. She lived in a wealthy neighborhood of south Minneapolis, right near Lake Harriet. She would not expect a police officer to shoot her in the stomach as she approached the car. She would expect the police officer to get out of the car to talk with her.
That’s not what happens in the United States anymore. Police officers are pumped up. Not all of them, but their adrenaline flows in situations where it should not. That adrenaline isn’t the result of dry, routine training in procedures. It results from a culture of fear and threat perception turned to aggressiveness, and use of firearms as a form of aggressive self-protection. It requires a lot of firm, even obstinate leadership in the other direction to change this culture, to turn police officers into public servants again.