David A. Love: Justine Ruszczyk's death deviates from a pattern we have come to expect, helping us view police abuse in a different light
Her killing bears similarities to cases of Philando Castile and Sean Bell but it also turns usual narratives about race upside down, Love writes
The recent shooting death of Justine Ruszczyk by police officer Mohamed Noor in Minneapolis is a reminder of the problem of police violence and lethal force in that city and around the nation. This case comes only a month after a former police officer in a nearby suburb, Jeronimo Yanez, was found not guilty in the July 2016 fatal shooting of Philando Castile.
This most recent case, however, does not adhere to the typical pattern, in which the victim is black and the offending police officer is not. Ruszczyk , who reportedly had called 911 to alert police to a sexual assault happening hear her home, was white, and Noor is black, the first Somali-American officer on the Minneapolis police force.
After Ruszczyk came outside in her pajamas and walked into an alley, Noor shot her to death through the door of his police car. Mystifyingly, both officers’ body cameras were turned off. Noor and fellow officer Matthew Harrity, who also responded to the scene, were placed on administrative leave. Harrity has talked to state investigators, who said he told them he was startled by a loud sound near his squad car before Noor (who has not spoken to investigators) fired.
This incident’s deviation from a pattern we have come to expect does not make it any less tragic, senseless or shocking. But it provides an opportunity for the public to view police abuse in a different light and to bring more visibility to the issue.
The killing of Ruszczyk, an immigrant from Australia, bears noteworthy similarities to the death not only of Castile but also that of Sean Bell, who died in a hail of 50 NYPD bullets from uniformed and plainclothes officers just hours before his wedding. Ruszczyk was to be married next month.
In both the Castile and Bell cases, police faced criticism for being too quick to fire their weapons and kill innocent civilians. Castile did all of the right things after being stopped: He produced his license and registration, and informed the officer he had a gun and was licensed to carry it. Officer Yanez, who claimed he feared for his life and saw Castile reaching for the gun, was still acquitted of manslaughter and reached a $48,500 settlement that ended his career with the town of St. Anthony. The Castile family settled with the Minneapolis suburb for $3 million.
Although four cops ultimately were forced out of the department after Bell’s death, none of the officers involved were convicted on criminal charges. Three NYPD detectives were acquitted by a judge in a bench trial in 2008, and the city of New York settled with Bell’s fiancée and friends for $7.15 million.
The aftermath of the deaths of Castile and Bell represent common outcomes of police fatality incidents involving unarmed civilians. Police typically are not indicted and rarely are convicted, which often means the victims’ families receive at most a lump sum settlement from the city rather than justice.
Some observers, lacking in empathy, have blamed black victims for their own deaths by claiming they did not comply with police instructions, mouthed off at officers, or were thugs or gang members.
In the aftermath of Ruszczyk’s death, however, it is clear that America is not as accustomed to the killing of an innocent white woman by police, much less by a black officer. That the officers involved in the killing of Justine Ruszczyk have been named, and the state investigation announced, suggests that this case – unlike so many other homicides over the years of black people involving police – is being taken seriously.
In that regard, Ruszczyk’s death may allow the crisis of police excessive force to become even more visible.
Unfortunately, many segments of society cannot (or refuse to) appreciate suffering until and unless it affects them or their own community. It is for this reason that black and brown people often believe their lives are not valued.
When white lives are at stake, society takes notice. During the civil rights movement, for example, the murders of white civil rights workers such as Viola Liuzzo in Alabama and Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner in Mississippi illuminated the problems of racist violence in the South in ways that felt new to many white people, even after African Americans had experienced a century of terrorism and lynching during Reconstruction and Jim Crow.
More recently, whites impacted by the opioid epidemic have been regarded as victims of a public health crisis who need treatment, and the crisis is a public health crisis, while blacks and Latinos caught up in the war on drugs in the 1980s and 1990s were treated as criminals and subjected to mass incarceration.
It’s too soon to know whether Ruszczyk’s death will bring the problem of police violence home to white Americans in ways that previous shootings haven’t. But it is neither inconsistent nor insensitive to say that her death was cold-blooded, and many in the black community are not surprised by it. In a country that has failed to rein in law enforcement practices and the use of deadly force, this recent killing in Minneapolis carries with it an air of inevitability.
The black community, their allies, and advocates for police reform have sounded the alarm for years, often to be met with attacks and accusations of stoking racial divisions. But those attacks ignore the reality that while Black Lives Matter has brought attention to the killing of black people, and the violence and discrimination facing people of color in the justice system, leaders and members of the movement have also voiced support for Dylan Noble, 19, a white teen killed by Fresno police in June of last year.
Citizens of color are the disproportionate victims of bad policing, but that does not mean they are the only ones. When police departments function well and work in concert with the community, and law enforcement is transparent and accountable to the public, society as a whole will benefit, regardless of race or ethnicity.
Justine Ruszczyk should not have died. Perhaps if society had cared enough to repair a broken system that has claimed so many lives, such as Philando Castile’s and Sean Bell’s, she might still be alive today.