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Noor trial: Questions resurface over BCA's cop-friendly approach

Former Minneapolis police officer Mohamed Noor leaves the Hennepin County Government Center after the first day of his trial in Minneapolis earlier this month. Evan Frost | MPR News

Officer Matthew Harrity was the only witness the night his partner, officer Mohamed Noor, shot and killed 911 caller Justine Ruszczyk in a Minneapolis alley. But state investigators were in no rush to get Harrity in a room and interview him.

Instead, Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension agents gave him three days, then took his statement at his lawyer's home over coffee and doughnuts.

It is standard practice for investigators to give police officers a few days to collect their thoughts, but Noor's trial has brought greater scrutiny to that kind of deferential treatment toward police officers. It's long been a concern about the BCA — the agency that typically oversees police shooting investigations in Minnesota.

What agents have characterized as simple police courtesy is viewed by some as tacit support for the police by investigators charged with probing an officer's potential wrongdoing.

Watchdog groups have criticized the BCA in past police shooting investigations where officers were ultimately found to be justified in using deadly force. Noor's case is even more complex because county prosecutors, who rely on the BCA, are the ones challenging the agents' impartiality.

"It taints some of these officers — the bias for them," and helps the prosecution make a case against Noor despite his silence, said Marsh Halberg, a criminal defense attorney who has attended most of the Noor trial but is not involved with the case.

"So, if the jury is feeling, why didn't they do this or why wasn't this more thorough or why didn't that happen, (jurors) have answers, that they can go back to this blue wall of silence," he said.

No longer on the force, Noor is charged with second- and third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter in the killing of Ruszczyk, also known as Justine Damond, in July 2017.

She had called 911 to report what she thought was an assault happening behind her home. Investigators say Noor, one of the responding police officers, shot Ruszczyk through the open driver's side window of the squad as she approached.

Key witnesses this week in Noor's trial have pulled back the veil a bit on how the BCA does its work investigating police shooting cases. The prosecution also exposed some of the frustration it felt as it worked to build a case against Noor.

BCA special agent Brent Petersen testified that when he took over as lead investigator five months after the shooting, only two officers who'd been on the scene had been interviewed.

Prosecutor Amy Sweasy noted that BCA agents refused to do some of the digging requested by the Hennepin County Attorney's Office, including investigating the source of the screaming that spurred Ruszczyk to call 911 that night.

Sweasy repeatedly pointed to a number of steps the BCA did not take that would've helped them present a complete case to the county attorney's office. With BCA agents' testimony, she painted a picture of police officers receiving special treatment.

Whether or not Ruszczyk slapped the police squad as she approached that night has become a key question at the trial. Prosecutors have argued that police officers at the crime scene concocted the story of a noise, and that Harrity didn't mention it to investigators until three days after the shooting.

The prosecution this week also presented evidence that showed Ruszczyk's prints weren't found on the squad car.

The BCA's work in the Noor case was also attacked Wednesday by Timothy Longo, a use-of-force expert for the prosecution and former police chief of Charlottesville, Va.

On the stand, Longo criticized the BCA's initial investigation as well as the work of Minneapolis police officers that night, saying they failed to get statements from officers at the scene or document conversations with Noor.

Longo also rapped the BCA's decision to return Noor's squad vehicle back to the Minneapolis, calling it "pretty disturbing."

From the very beginning, the Hennepin County Attorney's Office had a hard time working with the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension on this case.

Before he filed charges against Noor, Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman was caught on camera at a holiday party, saying he didn't have enough evidence from the BCA at that time. A month later, he convened a grand jury just to compel police officers to testify.

A BCA spokesperson said agents have worked closely with the prosecutor's office from the start but declined to comment further due to the ongoing trial.

Questions around these sorts of investigations are nothing new, said Jordan Kushner, a civil rights and criminal defense lawyer in Minneapolis.

What's different this time, he said, is that it's spilled into public view.

"No one who was involved in the investigations had any commitment to getting at the truth," Kushner said. "The commitment was to exonerate the police officers."

While testimony from some of the officers may shock the public, it will come down to whether the jury felt Noor was reasonable in that specific moment, said Halberg.

"I expect the defense to argue strongly at the end of this case, it doesn't matter. Even if for the sake of discussion, other officers were improper by trying to slow the investigation, protect Noor, do those types of things," said Halberg.

"That's not what's on trial here," he said. "It's not the conduct of other officers. It's not the policy of the police. It's not the whole good ol' boy network."

This story originally appeared at: https://www.mprnews.org/story/2019/04/25/police-trial-shooting-justine-damond-ruszczyk-australia-bca-investigation

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