Mohamed Noor, center, was found guilty this week in the fatal police shooting of Justine Ruszczyk.Craig Lassig/Reuters
The national debate over race and policing has felt particularly close to activists in Minneapolis, who viewed several cases in their region as examples of police officers not being held accountable for killing black civilians.
But when the justice system finally came down on an officer in a fatal shooting this week, it was not exactly the victory those activists had been seeking.
Mohamed Noor, who is black, Somali and Muslim, became the first Minnesota police officer convicted of murder in an on-duty killing, when a jury found him guilty on Tuesday in the fatal shooting of Justine Ruszczyk, who was white.
While many in the community said Mr. Noor should have been held accountable, they could not help but wonder what the outcome would have been if the races of the officer and the victim had been flipped.
“This is an anomaly based on the race of the officer, and the race and affluence of the victim,” said Nekima Levy Armstrong, a civil rights lawyer and activist in Minneapolis. “The system treats African-Americans and white people differently, whether they are the victim in a police-involved shooting case or whether they are the police officer. This is absolutely outrageous.”
Even as activists and community leaders said that Ms. Ruszczyk deserved justice and expressed their condolences for her family, the verdict raised uncomfortable questions about the racial dynamics of the case.
Some saw a system and a society that was quick to embrace and sympathize with Ms. Ruszczyk, a benefit that black victims rarely enjoy. Others felt that Mr. Noor did not get the vocal support of the police establishment that they usually see in police-shooting cases and wondered whether this would deter black people from law enforcement careers.
“The only difference is that the officer involved in the shooting in this case happened to be a black Muslim immigrant, and the deceased person is a Caucasian lady,” said Waheid Siraach, a former police officer and a founder of the Somali-American Police Association. “People can put the two and two together.”
[Read about Ms. Ruszczyk’s family receiving a $20 million settlement from Minneapolis.]
Legal action against police officers involved in fatal shootings is exceedingly rare. Since 2005, 101 nonfederal officers have been charged with murder or manslaughter in shootings while they were on duty, according to Philip Stinson, a criminologist at Bowling Green State University. About 36 percent of those officers have been convicted, but only four of them on murder charges; the others were for lesser offenses.
In 2016, a police officer in a suburb of St. Paul, Minn., shot and killed Philando Castile, who was black, during a traffic stop. The officer, who was Latino, was charged with manslaughter and acquitted by a jury after saying he had feared for his life.
In the Noor case, Mike Freeman, the Hennepin County prosecutor, was criticized by some who said he was holding Mr. Noor to a different standard than he has white officers — an accusation that the prosecutor fiercely denied after the verdict was announced.
“I’ve heard a small group in the community make disparaging remarks about me and this office to the effect that I won’t charge white cops who shoot black people, but I’ll charge black cops who shoot white people,” he said during a news conference. “That simply is not true. Race has never been a factor in any of my decisions and never will be.”
In 2016, Mr. Freeman chose not to charge officers in the shooting death of Jamar Clark, who was black, saying Mr. Clark had grabbed one officer’s holstered gun. Last year, he did not charge the officers who pursued and shot at Thurman Blevins, killing him; Mr. Freeman said Mr. Blevins, who was also black, had a gun and did not follow the officers’ commands. In the killing of Travis Jordan this January, the prosecutor said the police officers had faced a deadly threat because Mr. Jordan, who was Hawaiian, had a knife and was coming toward them.
Mr. Freeman argued that the details in those cases were different from those in the shooting of Ms. Ruszczyk. Each case is handled on its own merits, he said, and the facts showed that Mr. Noor, who was fired from the Minneapolis Police Department after the shooting, had acted unreasonably.
Ms. Ruszczyk, who sometimes used the last name of her fiancé, Don Damond, had called the police late one night in July 2017 to report hearing what sounded like a woman in distress in the alley behind her house. Mr. Noor and his partner were in their squad car in the alley investigating when Ms. Ruszczyk approached.
Mr. Noor, 33, testified during the trial that he had heard a bang and had fired one shot from the passenger’s seat when Ms. Ruszczyk appeared at the driver’s side window.
Mr. Noor’s explanation did not convince the racially diverse jury, which convicted him of third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter.
Prosecutors seemed to imply at one point during the trial that Ms. Ruszczyk’s appearance should not have been threatening.
“Her whole blonde hair, pink T-shirt and all, that was all threat to you?” Amy Sweasy, an assistant county attorney, asked Mr. Noor during cross-examination, according to The Star Tribune.
Minnesota has a large Somali population, and many have expressed their displeasure with what they saw as unfair treatment of Mr. Noor. A demonstration in Minneapolis on Wednesday brought together various social justice organizations, including one called Justice for Justine, which advocated for Ms. Ruszczyk. Speaking at the demonstration, Drew Rosielle, a member of the group, sympathized with the complicated racial dynamics of the case.
“What Justine has received, we want for everyone,” he said, according to a written statement provided by the organization. “If Justine is the only one to be treated this way, this is not real justice, but another racist wound inflicted on our community.”
Mr. Siraach, the Somali-American former police officer, said there seemed to be a rush to judgment against Mr. Noor. He was upset with statements made by the former Minneapolis police chief that he felt suggested that Mr. Noor had acted improperly. He also did not think that the Police Federation of Minneapolis, the union representing officers, was as vocal as they usually were when officers were accused of wrongdoing.
Lt. Bob Kroll, the president of the federation, disputed that in an email. “This is a very ignorant statement made by those that are naïve about our role and the process, and by those that quickly play the race card without merit,” he wrote.
Lieutenant Kroll said he had been helping Mr. Noor and his lawyers throughout the process. He did not speak out because Mr. Noor’s legal team had kept mostly quiet, he said, and because his public statements could have been used to make him testify.
Mustafa Diriye, a community organizer working in Minneapolis, said he had advocated vigorously for justice for Ms. Ruszczyk, just as he had for black victims of police shootings. He was pleased with the verdict, he said.
Yet he could not help but be bothered that the system had worked so well for a white woman when it had failed so many black people, he said.
“‘I fear for my life’ — that’s what all white cops get away with,” said Mr. Diriye, who is originally from Somalia. “That only works for white officers. They can fear for their life. But if you are black, no, no you cannot be fearful.”
Mr. Diriye said he felt that if white people would demand justice for black police-shooting victims the way they did for Ms. Ruszczyk, things could be different.
“The hypocrisy is there,” he said. “That is my frustration.”