Noor trial: Chief says no talk of thump on squad after Ruszczyk shot

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

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Updated 3 p.m. | Posted 12:01 a.m.

Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo said Monday he heard nothing about a thump or noise startling Mohamed Noor before the officer fired, killing 911 caller Justine Ruszczyk, and that the idea of a thump surfaced only days after the shooting.

Arradondo also told prosecutors at Noor's trial there were no concerns that night about Noor and his partner, officer Matthew Harrity, driving into a potential ambush in Ruszczyk's Fulton neighborhood alley.

Full coverage: The trial of former officer Mohamed Noor

No longer on the force, Noor faces murder and manslaughter charges in the shooting death of Ruszczyk, who was also known as Justine Damond. She had called 911 to report what she thought was an assault behind her home in July 2017.

The questions about whether the officers heard a startling noise or feared ambush have become central to the trial.

• April 9: Sounds, figures, fears surface in first day of testimony

Noor's defense attorneys have argued the officer fired his weapon to protect his terrified partner after hearing a thump on the squad and then seeing a figure by the driver's side window raise their right arm.

Prosecutors, however, say that the thump was a story that was made up later, that no police at the scene that night talked about a thump on the squad and that Ruszczyk, who was in her pajamas as she approached the squad, could not have been considered a threat.

Former Minneapolis police officer Mohamed Noor, center, during his trial last week. Cedric Hohnstadt for MPR News

Under cross examination by defense attorney Peter Wold, Arradondo acknowledged he wasn't involved in the investigation at the time. Arradondo was assistant chief when Ruszczyk was shot. The case led to the resignation of then-chief Janee Harteau and to Arradondo's promotion.

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Much of Arradondo's testimony centered on the department's body camera policy at the time of the shooting.

Wold pressed Arradondo on whether policy would have required officers to turn on cameras on scene. The chief said yes, that it would be appropriate for an officer to turn on a body camera while responding to an unknown trouble call like the one Noor responded to that night.

Prosecutors this week could call a number of additional witnesses this week, including his former partner, use-of-force experts and state investigators.

They're on the prosecution's nine pages of potential witnesses, and they've yet to take the stand. Additional body-camera videos worn by police officers, including Noor and Harrity, could also be introduced as evidence in the coming days.

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Harrity's testimony will be crucial. He was driving the squad car when Noor, sitting in the passenger seat, fired across Harrity through the open driver's side window and struck Ruszczyk in the abdomen.

Last week on the stand, several Minneapolis police officers provided details of the chaotic moments after Ruszczyk was shot. Their testimony, coupled with body-camera footage, also illustrated how they urged him to keep quiet.

Prosecutors pressed officers on why they did not turn on body cameras, or turned them on and off. Neither Noor nor Harrity activated their cameras in time to capture the shooting.

Investigator Adam Castilleja pointed to a photo of the alley where Justine Ruszczyk was killed in July 2017 during the trial last week. Cedric Hohnstadt for MPR News

Officer Jesse Lopez's body-camera footage recorded him advising Noor after the shooting to keep to himself and keep his mouth shut. Under cross-examination by the defense, Lopez said he was trying to communicate what he understood was a standard practice after a police shooting.

Lopez turned his body camera off after talking to Noor and before talking to the sergeant who was in command of the scene.

Other officers expressed confusion about body camera policies at that time, or said they'd just failed to press the "on" button correctly.

"I'm hot right now," officer Joseph Grout said to a fellow officer in one of the clips, meaning his camera was recording. Shortly after, Grout deactivated the camera.

Prosecutors spent much of last week presenting their version of what happened the night of July 15, 2017. They argue that there was no justification for Noor to shoot Ruszczyk.

Defense attorneys contend Noor and his partner were startled after they say Ruszczyk slapped the squad car and approached the driver's side window. That's when Noor shot her.

Ruszczyk's death was a tragedy, but it wasn't a crime, Wold said.

Although he wasn't allowed to bring up "ambush" headlines during his opening statement, Wold on Friday used one of the prosecutors' witnesses to slip the conversation into the testimony.

Lt. Dan May, the shift supervisor at the time of the shooting, was the prosecution's 12th witness. Unlike other officers dressed in light blue, May came dressed in a white shirt indicating a commanding role. Several stripes on his left arm represented his 30 years of service. May was the officer who shot 17-year-old Tycel Nelson in 1990; a grand jury later cleared him of criminal charges.

May said he discussed ambush scenarios with young officers around the time of the Ruszczyk shooting. He mentioned Dallas and New York City officers ambush incidents from recent years. He also mentioned Jerry Haaf, a Minneapolis police officer killed by a gang member at a pizza shack in 1992.

May said he talked about ambush with young officers because he "was concerned they wouldn't take those threats seriously."

But the prosecution pushed back. Assistant Hennepin County Attorney Patrick Lofton pointed out that May didn't write discussions of ambush in his report on the July 15, 2017, shooting, suggesting it wasn't a concern that night. The first time May answered questions about it was during a meeting with the defense expert witness in February 2019.

May sat with Noor in a squad car. Noor seemed "visibly shaken" and said very little. Under cross-examination by the defense, May said he trusted Noor and Harrity's judgment. Their car was one of the squads armed with a high-power rifle.

"You're not going to arm just anybody with that type of weapon," May said.

The defense also tried to introduce one of Noor's performance evaluations that May signed, but didn't create, in 2016. Hennepin County District Judge Kathryn Quaintance didn't allow it because she said it was irrelevant to the case.

Throughout the testimony, defense attorneys have tried to introduce evidence of character, which isn't admissible. On Friday, Wold argued that it help explain whether Noor acted as a reasonable police officer at the time of the shooting. Their strategy has opened up the door for the prosecution to introduce Noor's "prior acts," which they argued before the trial and Quaintance ruled to exclude them.

The trial started April 1 and is expected to continue throughout the month.

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