Chicago (AFP) – Police in the US state of Minnesota were startled by a loud sound prior to shooting an Australian woman who had called them to report a possible assault, investigators revealed on Tuesday.
The state agency probing the fatal police shooting of Justine Damond, also known by her maiden name Justine Ruszczyk, interviewed one of the two officers who responded to her emergency call on Saturday night in Minneapolis.
It was the first time since the shooting that authorities offered more information about the circumstances, as community leaders and Damond’s family complained they had received few details.
Officer Matthew Harrity told investigators Tuesday that he had been “startled by a loud sound” near the squad car while responding to the call, the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA) said in a statement.
His partner, Officer Mohamed Noor, was in the passenger seat.
“Immediately afterward Ruszczyk approached the driver’s side window of the squad (car). Harrity indicated that Officer Noor discharged his weapon, striking Ruszczyk through the open driver’s side window,” the agency said.
BCA did not identify the sound, but an unidentified officer recorded on a police radio conversation published by Minnesota PoliceClips speculated it may have been fireworks that sounded like gun shots.
The officers’ body-worn cameras were not on during the incident. After the shooting, they provided medical aid until paramedics arrived, the BCA said.
The medical examiner’s office said Damond died of a gunshot wound to the abdomen. She was pronounced dead at the scene, according to the BCA.
Investigators appealed for witnesses to come forward.
– Family speaks out –
Damond, a 40-year-old meditation instructor and life coach, was an Australian national who had moved to the US to marry her fiance Don Damond, and had changed her name ahead of the marriage.
She had called Minneapolis police Saturday around 11:30 pm to report “what she believed was an active sexual assault occurring nearby,” Don Damond said on Monday.
“Sadly, her family and I have been provided with almost no additional information from law enforcement regarding what happened after police arrived.”
Speaking in Australia, her father John Ruszczyk on Tuesday called for justice.
“Justine was a beacon to all of us. We only ask that the light of justice shine down on the circumstances of her death,” he said.
Authorities found no weapons at the scene, though they recovered Damond’s cell phone.
“I understand why so many people have so many questions at this point,” Minneapolis Police Chief Janee Harteau said late Monday.
“I have many of the same questions and it is why we immediately asked for an external and independent investigation.”
– Officer ‘a caring person’ –
Noor, who has been with the Minneapolis police force for 21 months, declined investigators’ requests for an interview, the BCA said. Officers are not required to participate in a BCA investigation.
In a statement, Noor’s attorney Tom Plunkett called the officer “a caring person with a family he loves and he empathizes with the loss others are experiencing.”
Plunkett added that the ongoing investigation prevented the officer from saying any more about the incident.
The shooting was the latest high-profile case in which police fired fatal shots.
Most of those cases involve white police officers and African American victims. In this case, Noor is Somali American, while Damond was white.
Congressman Keith Ellison, who represents Damond’s district in the US House of Representatives, tied her case with others such as that of black motorist Philando Castile, killed last year near Minneapolis during a traffic stop.
“We need to confront the reality of so many unarmed people killed by the same officers who swear an oath to protect us,” Ellison said in a statement.
“Justine’s death shows no one should assume ‘officer-involved shootings’ only happen in a certain part of town or to certain kinds of people.”