Justine Damond was, by all accounts, the sort of woman who couldn’t help but nurture and protect the life around her. In the wake of Damond’s death—she was fatally shot while unarmed and pajama-clad by Minneapolis police officer Mohamed Noor, who was responding to her 911 call—photojournalist Angela Jimenez released a widely circulated video of the 40-year-old Australian veterinarian-turned-yogini rescuing a gaggle of ducklings trapped in a sewer and reuniting them with their distressed mother.
Much has been made of Damond’s status as the “ideal victim.” Robert Bennett, an attorney for Damond’s family, described her as “the most innocent victim” of a police shooting he had ever seen. Rightfully, black activists and writers have pointed out the hypocrisy implied in his words: that black people who are shot by police are not innocent but somehow deserving of their fates.
Damond was no more innocent than Aiyana Stanley-Jones or Tamir Rice, seven and 12 years old respectively when they were shot by police. But she is the embodiment of what a lot of people understand to be innocence: white, beautiful, kind, affianced. Not the type of person who gets themselves shot by the police.
Compared to the recent past, victims of police violence aren’t receiving as much attention as they once did, so for Damond’s case to dominate headlines and social media tells us something. News of the case reached as far as her native Australia, where the media dubbed the shooting an “American Nightmare” and Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull demanded answers and accountability. In short order, just as public protest began to ramp up on Friday, the Minneapolis chief of police was forced by the mayor to resign. Black Lives Matter in Minneapolis has stepped up to put pressure on the mayor, including the same organizers that led protests in the wake of Philando Castile’s death.
Justine Damond is not the first white woman killed by police, but their deaths at the hands of the cops are rare. Of the 554 fatal force incidents the Washington Post has tallied this year, 12 were white women and three were unarmed. Last year, unarmed white women were less than 1% of the victims of police shootings. Police often use mental illness or the presence of a deadly weapon—often both—as justifications for shootings involving white women.
When these women are killed by police, there are often major institutional outcomes: the ouster of a police chief, the introduction of mental health units, a federal investigation at a time when it took scores of black deaths at the hands of police and full on riots to get the DOJ involved, and real prison time for an officer.
Take the 1999 case of Colleen Kelly, a suicidal white woman armed with a fanny pack who was shot and killed by Houston police while on her way to get medical help. The outrage surrounding her death, along with that of Sheryl Seymour, a schizophrenic white woman who was shot while brandishing a knife at police in the same year, eventually lead to federal court cases and the HPD reforming their use of force policy for the mentally ill. Now, officers are trained in de-escalation tactics, though critics point out that police are still shooting mentally ill people of all genders at an alarming rate.
In other cases, the death of a white woman will simply result in prison time—which is still more than the vast majority of black victims can hope for. In 2012, Officer Dan Harmon-Wright shot and killed Patricia Ann Cook as she was sitting in her car in a Catholic school parking lot. Harmon-Wright was responding to a report of a suspicious person in the area, and opened fire into Cook’s Jeep. He was charged with voluntary manslaughter and sentenced to three years in prison.
It’s almost never the case that a single police killing of a black person triggers a federal investigation, especially prior to the Black Lives Matter movement. But in 2002, Dawn Rae Nelson, a white woman, was suspected of trying to fill a forged prescription in Chandler, Arizona. Officer Dan Lovelace responded and as he was looking at her back plates, she pulled the car forward. He ran to the driver’s side window and shot in through the window, killing her in front of her 14-month-old son. The mayor of Chandler condemned the shooting and the DOJ investigated through the U.S. Attorney’s office. Lovelace was charged with second degree murder but acquitted in 2004. Nelson’s family was awarded a large cash settlement in a civil suit.
Cases where white women are victims of police violence are so uncommon that it’s difficult to find documentation of them prior to the 1990s. It’s easier to find information about black people because of the Civil Rights Movement, and it wasn’t until the highly politicized Rodney King case—the first well-documented case of “copwatching”—when activists truly began to frame police brutality as an institutional injustice rather than isolated cases.
So yes, incidents where white women are shot and killed by police inspire localized outrage and a lawsuit on occasion. But the level of media interest in Damond’s death is rare. The international outrage directed squarely at American policing and gun culture has resonated across borders, only amplifying the spectacle surrounding the shooting.
That might also have to do with the cop who shot her.
Justine Damond is not simply a white woman killed by police. She’s a white woman killed by a black, Somali man. As the first Somali officer in his precinct, many—including Mayor Hodges—hoped Noor’s presence would foster trust between the city’s sizable Somali population and police.
In the wake of Damond’s death, the Blue Lives Matter crowd that typically asks the public to stand behind law enforcement hasn’t rallied around Officer Noor but has instead decried the fact that he was a “diversity hire” and therefore incompetent. It’s no secret that Somalis—most of whom fit the categories of black, Muslim, and refugee—are not faring well in this racially charged political moment. President Trump singled out Somali nationals for his travel ban and campaigned by ginning up fear of Somalis as terrorists. It’s not surprising that Noor isn’t receiving the same treatment that white officers might. The blue wall of silence doesn’t extend to every cop.
Consider how NYPD Officer Peter Liang was treated after killing Akai Gurley. Officer Liang was described as a “rookie” and it was often implied that he was incompetent. It’s become clear that he was, but are incompetent white officers treated similarly? Bratton himself described Gurley as “a total innocent,” essentially condemning his officer as an amoral killer. Liang was charged and convicted of manslaughter, although ultimately he got probation.
By comparison, Officer Daniel Pantaleo, who put Eric Garner in a fatal chokehold, received a raise while on modified duty. Bratton said he didn’t believe race had anything to do with the killing and that Garner died because he resisted arrest.
Somali American Minnesota state representative Ilhan Omar has pointed out that while Noor is black and Somali, it is more important to consider that a violent police culture is systemic regardless of race or ethnicity. “The current officer training program indoctrinates individuals of all races into a system that teaches them to act first, think later, and justify with fear,” she said in a statement.
Hiring a black Somali man was never a solution to police violence or distrust of the cops. To change the police, you have to change the institution.
In the Trump era, white women are waking up to the political reality of oppression. All this time, Black Lives Matter and other movements have been pointing out that the systems governing this country are fundamentally flawed. Damond’s tragic killing shows us that contrary to the myth of racism, it’s not so much about people holding hate in their hearts as it is about a tradition of violence that is bigger and older than any of us.
This piece has been updated to reflect the fact that Mohamed Noor is the first Somali officer in his precinct, not in the Minnesota police force.