Scott Johnson

One night last week Grand Rapids Police Officers were called to a report of a suicidal man inside a residence, armed with a handgun. Officer Gary O’Brien was the first officer to arrive at the house and began walking up the driveway. As he came around the corner of the garage, the man was standing outside pointing a semi-automatic pistol at Gary’s chest. Gary’s life could have been taken from him that instant. Gary could have taken the man’s life. He had the right under Minnesota law to do so. Sometimes having the right to take a life and whether or not you should take a life are two different things. Officers have a split second to make that decision and it is an individual decision. That is where judgment and training meet the real world of policing. Recruiting those with that judgment and then providing them with appropriate training is imperative. Gary ducked back behind the corner of the garage and radioed for help.

The trial and conviction of former Minneapolis police officer Mohamed Noor for the shooting death of Justine Damond have captured the news. Damond had called the Minneapolis Police reporting a possible assault in the alley behind her house. As Officer Noor and his partner drove down the alley, Officer Noor shot Damond through the driver’s window of the squad car after hearing a bang against the side of the car. Upon first hearing of the incident, the reaction of police officers I spoke with was, “What on earth? Why would you shoot, let alone inside a police car across your partner who was driving the car?”  

Conversations within the squad room of the Grand Rapids Police Department are probably the same as those taking place in police stations across Minnesota. They center on police officer selection, training and judgment.  

Officers spend a lot of time training in the Use of Force, including firearms. Much emphasis is placed on “shoot, don’t shoot” decision-making. Hearing a bang against the side of a squad car should not elicit an “I should shoot” response.

If officers believe they are being ambushed, they are taught to accelerate their squad car as fast as possible. Put the accelerator pedal to the floor. Drive out of the situation. They are not taught that their first reaction should be to draw their gun and shoot. Officers are also taught to know what they are shooting at before pulling the trigger. Think about it. Isn’t this the same thing we teach our youth in the DNR Firearms Safety course?   

Despite the testimony of the prosecutor’s expert Use of Force witness, there are times when officers do remove their handguns from holsters while seated in a squad car. If a stranger is approaching your parked squad car, late at night, and something doesn’t feel right, it isn’t unusual to conceal your handgun on your lap. The person is not aware of it. Officers are taught to consider this.

Agents of the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension are experienced investigators before they are ever considered for the position of agent. That is why they are agents. No doubt, the criticism of the original investigation had little to do with a lack of experience in investigating shootings or lack of desire to do a thorough investigation. If media reports are accurate, those present at the scene were not readily forthcoming in providing information to police department supervisors or the BCA agents.  

We can only guess that their thinking was, “Keep your mouth shut. The less you say the better. An officer is now a suspect in what may later be determined to be a crime. Don’t say much until you have spoken with an attorney. You have the right to remain silent, the same as everyone else.”  This is not an effort to cover up anything. The criminal justice system works this way. In fact, some police labor organizations endorse this. Shouldn’t police officers, however, hold themselves to a higher standard? Shouldn’t they be forthcoming with what occurred? Do officers really believe they have something to fear from their supervisors and the criminal justice system? After all, isn’t this the same criminal justice system that officers have taken an oath to uphold?

Some members of the public seem to automatically assume that the officer did something wrong before any investigation occurs. For others, if they do not like the result of the investigation or charging decision they advocate for a separate criminal justice system for the police. Still others, from all sides, play the race card both ways. This is a frustrating time to be a peace officer.

Recruitment seems to be a reoccurring subject. How did Mr. Noor become a police officer? Where did the screening process go awry? Was something lacking in screening or training? What is to be learned from this?

The media also reported that the taxpayers of Minneapolis would be giving Justine’s family $20 million. Of course, this will never bring back this young woman. My guess is that it will, however, make Attorney Robert Bennett wealthier. He is noted for bringing litigation against Minnesota Police Officers. Maybe plaintiff litigation attorneys are the only ones that really have a positive outcome in these things. For the rest of us, it is a tragedy in which everyone has a loss.

I think it is important to remember that the Minneapolis Police Department has many fine, outstanding officers. They are the norm. They are caring, compassionate people that work in a very unpredictable environment and conduct themselves with the utmost in professionalism.  They are experienced and make good decisions every day. For these officers, their worst nightmare is to take the life of another human being, yet sometimes they must do so.

Police officers are given a sacred trust. This trust was violated. It was not every officer that did so. It was one officer.


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