A Black cop's murder conviction was overturned. For Minneapolis' Somali community, justice is complicated.

·11 min read

Almost a year before outrage over George Floyd's death under the knee of police officer Derek Chauvin rocked Minneapolis, hundreds gathered in front of the downtown courthouse in support of another former officer: Mohamed Noor.

Hours before Noor was sentenced in the death of Justine Ruszczyk Damond, speakers led the crowd — some of whom were Somali-American, like Noor — in prayer and spoke out against what they called a double standard for people of color in the criminal justice system.

Noor fatally shot Damond, who was white, in July 2017 after she called 911 to report a possible crime and approached his squad car in an alley behind her home. He was charged with third-degree murder and manslaughter, and sentenced to 12 ½ years.

At the time, many members of the city’s large Somali community said they believed race played a role in Noor’s conviction and sentence. That's because police officers are rarely charged, let alone convicted, in cases where they kill someone while on-duty.

Prior to Noor's case, the Minnesota police officers involved in the shooting deaths of two Black men, Jamar Clark in 2015 and Philando Castile in 2016, had been cleared. And Noor, who is Black, was believed to be the first officer in Minnesota to be convicted of murder for an on-duty shooting.

The recent decision by the state Supreme Court to overturn Noor's murder charge has stirred up complicated feelings for Minneapolis' Somali-American community about the criminal justice system.

Some celebrated the Supreme Court's decision. The Minnesota-based Somali-American Police Association called the case a “gross miscarriage of justice and ignorance.”

Others expressed frustration that the murder conviction was overturned, although they had anticipated that court decision due to outcomes of previous cases.

“I’m not surprised,” said Jaylani Hussein, executive director of the Council on American Islamic Relations in Minneapolis.

On one hand, he said, Noor wasn't treated the same as white officers because he is Black, pointing to the case of white police officer Kim Potter, who was charged with manslaughter but not murder in the death of Daunte Wright in nearby Brooklyn Center in April.

“But at the end of the day, him being a police officer saved him from having his murder conviction upheld," he said.

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Noor's case is an 'example of the racism' in criminal justice system

In July 2017, Damond, a dual U.S.-Australian citizen, called 911 to report a possible sexual assault behind her home. She approached Noor's squad car in an alley, and Noor said he fired his weapon because he heard a loud bang on his vehicle and feared for his partner's safety. He later admitted he was wrong for shooting Damond.

In 2019, a jury found him guilty of third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter, but he was only sentenced on the murder count.

The decision to pursue third-degree murder charges against Noor for killing a white woman is an “example of the racism that is pervasive throughout the criminal legal system,” said Sarah Davis, executive director of the Legal Rights Center in Minneapolis.

In Minnesota, the language for third-degree murder notes that the action must be “eminently dangerous to others.” But the lower court uniquely interpreted the charge to apply to a fatal act directed at a single victim in Noor's case, Davis said.

Anyone who had read the case law and seen the precedent knew that the state’s high course would reverse the lower court’s decision, Davis said.

And that's what the Supreme Court did. Noor's case will go back to a lower court, where he will be sentenced on the manslaughter count. That charge carries a presumptive sentence of four years, meaning he could be eligible for release by the end of the year.

More: If Minnesota officer had been white, would he have been convicted?

In Derek Chauvin's case, the former Minneapolis police officer was initially charged by the Hennepin County prosecutor’s office with the same counts that Noor faced. The Minnesota Attorney General later added a second-degree murder charge, and Chauvin was convicted on all charges earlier this year for the death of George Floyd.

The Supreme Court's ruling in Noor's case could allow Chauvin to contest his third-degree murder conviction, but it would have little impact because he was sentenced on the most serious count.

In this screen grab from video, former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin is seen during victim impact statements as Hennepin County Judge Peter Cahill presides over sentencing,  Friday, June 25, 2021 in Minneapolis.   Chauvin faces decades in prison in the death of George Floyd.
In this screen grab from video, former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin is seen during victim impact statements as Hennepin County Judge Peter Cahill presides over sentencing, Friday, June 25, 2021 in Minneapolis. Chauvin faces decades in prison in the death of George Floyd.

State Rep. Mohamud Noor, who is not related to Mohamed Noor, said many people in his district, which includes a large Somali-American population, believe Noor's sentence was unfair. Knowing it will be revised is "a big relief" for them, he said.

While the court's decision shows the system is working, legislators need to set better parameters for convictions and have more conversations about challenges faced by people of color in the criminal justice system, Rep. Noor said.

"We need to be able to avoid going all the way to the Supreme Court," he said.

At the time of the conviction, some Somali-American leaders spoke out against the racial dynamics at play in the case. The Somali American Police Association said institutional prejudice against people of color “heavily influenced” Noor’s conviction.

Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman told reporters after the verdict that race didn't play a role, and "the evidence showed that the officer acted unreasonably.”

Others, including Rep. Ilhan Omar — another Somali-American from Minneapolis and one of the first two Muslim women in Congress — saw the guilty verdict as an important victory against police brutality and urged accountability in all officer-involved killings.

“It cannot be lost, however, that it comes in the wake of acquittals for officers who took the lives of people of color, both in Minnesota and nationwide,” Omar said in a statement at the time. She declined to comment on the reversal of Noor’s conviction.

Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn. speaks during funeral services of Daunte Wright.
Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn. speaks during funeral services of Daunte Wright.

Cops shoot and kill about 1,000 people each year, according to a Washington Post database. But since 2005, 142 nonfederal police officers have been arrested for murder or manslaughter, and only seven were convicted of murder, Philip Stinson, a Bowling Green State University criminology professor who tracks police misconduct, previously told USA TODAY.

More: Chauvin to appeal murder conviction and sentence in George Floyd's death

Fact check: Police rarely prosecuted for on-duty shootings

Court's decision a 'bittersweet moment' for Somali community

Minnesota is home to the nation’s largest Somali population, with about 70,700 residents reported Somali ancestry in 2019, according to the American Community Survey.

The state's refugee program attracted a large number of Somali families fleeing the country’s civil war and about 59% of the state's Somali population was born outside the U.S., state demographer Susan Brower previously told USA TODAY.

But Minneapolis and its police force remain predominantly white. When Noor joined the department in 2015, he was just one of nine Somali officers and the first in his precinct. His hiring was celebrated by then-Mayor Betsy Hodges, the Star Tribune reported.

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Noor's conviction became a major topic of discussion at restaurants and coffee shops in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood, nicknamed "little Mogadishu" for its high concentration of Somalis, said Mohamed Salad, a political science and economic student at Augsburg University who lives in the neighborhood.

Salad said he was surprised to see Noor convicted when officers involved in the high profile police killings of Castille and Clark weren't.

Clark, 24, was killed in 2015 when Minneapolis police said he reached for an officer's gun; a number of witnesses told investigators he was handcuffed when he was shot.

A year later, Jeronimo Yanez, a Latino officer in St. Anthony, Minnesota, opened fire seconds after Castile told him he had a firearm during a traffic stop. Yanez was charged with manslaughter but was later acquitted.

"I was definitely aware of the fact this guy was treated differently because he was Somali," said Salad, 21.

When he learned the conviction had been overturned, it reinforced the feeling that police officers won't be punished for misconduct, Salad said.

"Somebody died because of his actions ... and those things have to have consequences even if you’re a cop," he said. "It makes you feel like, 'OK, (police) really don’t care and they really don’t want change.'"

Hussein, of the Council on American Islamic Relations, noted Somali-Americans have been targeted by law enforcement on multiple fronts. He pointed to statements and documents from the FBI showing the bureau’s counterterrorism operations targeted the community in Minneapolis through spying, intimidation and profiling.

He also highlighted the death of Dolal Idd, who was shot Dec. 30 after Minneapolis police said he fired at them during a weapons investigation. Prosecutors declined to file charges against the officers involved last month.

Idd's death came after another Somali-American, Isak Aden, was shot during a standoff with police in Eagan, Minnesota, in 2019. The local county attorney's found the shooting was justified, but Aden's family filed a federal lawsuit last summer alleging he was targeted because of his race.

“The reality is the Somali community here is also dealing with a system that looks at them differently,” Hussein said.

Burhan Israfael, 31, said the decision to toss out the murder charge shows the criminal justice system and police "always fail the people." Like Noor, Israfael immigrated from Somalia to the U.S. but said he doesn't sympathize with Noor just because they're from the same place.

“It shouldn’t be all of a sudden because I’m Somali and we’re Black there’s some sort of sympathy for him as a cop,” said Israfael, a youth therapist and organizer. "Her life was taken. For me, that’s where it begins and ends."

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Others in the community have said they see the decision to overturn the conviction as justice, said Ahmed Ismail Yusuf, a high school English teacher and writer from Somalia who has lived in Minneapolis since 1997.

"Somalis, just like any other group new to the nation, they try to be part of the community," he said. "No one wanted him convicted because he was our representation of someone who made it."

Yusuf believes Noor was a scapegoat and his case is proof that people of color are treated differently than their white peers. He said the outcome of Noor's next court appearance will show if he's being treated fairly.

"I did want police accountability," Yusuf said. "I don't want him to go scot free, but I want him to have equal accountability."

For Ifrah Hashi, Noor becoming a police officer was a source of pride and embodied the achievement of the American dream. She said it was "heartbreaking" to see him vilified and it was clear he felt remorse.

Hashi, 30, left Minneapolis and her job in the city's health department with her two children due to the protests after Floyd's death. She said Noor's release will be a good thing for the community, but acknowledged how difficult it may be for Damond's family.

"It's a bittersweet moment," said Hashi. "I don't want to make it seem like 'yay, it's a victory' when really it's very sad situation."

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Many say regardless of what happened with Noor, more needs to be done to hold all officers accountable and improve police-community relations.

In the meantime, Minneapolis residents will vote in November on replacing the city's police with a department of public safety. And more changes could be coming after the Justice Department and the Minnesota Department of Human Rights investigate the policies and practices of Minneapolis police.

For Israfael, he believes increased funding for community centers and local businesses instead of relying on police as a public safety tool could help stifle violence and crime in the south Minneapolis neighborhood where he grew up.

“These structures have always failed us,” he said. “My hope and my vision lies with the people being able to see things differently eventually.”

Contributing: Tami Abdollah and Rick Rouan, USA TODAY; The Associated Press

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Mohamed Noor: What does justice mean for Minneapolis' Somalis?