That question has been focal point since Minneapolis Police Officer Mohamed Noor killed Justine Damond on July 15, after she called to report a possible sexual assault near her home. It’s not clear what happened between the time Damond called 911 and when the officers arrived. Officer Matthew Harrity, Noor’s partner, says he heard a loud noise before Noor fired a single shot into Damond’s stomach from the passenger seat of the police cruiser.
As with many police shootings, Damond’s death has been clouded by a breakdown in transparency, which has drawn frustrated responses from around the region. In vigils and protests, demonstrators have asked why the officer didn’t have their body cameras turned on, despite a department policy requiring the devices to be activated either during or after critical incidents. Law enforcement officials have been slow to offer details or explanations. Left largely in the dark, Damond’s family has called for a federal investigation into her death and changes in police protocol.
Many of the questions surrounding Damond’s death look familiar, because they’ve been asked before in the wake of numerous high-profile shootings, often involving black civilians. But the near-universal demand for answers, driven by a shared sense of outrage and shock across the political divide over Damond’s death, is not. Something is different about Damond.
Robert Bennett, the Minneapolis lawyer hired to represent Damond’s family, unintentionally touched on the well-known concept of a “perfect” victim in an interview earlier this month, when he referred to Damond in an off-the-cuff remark as “the most innocent victim” of any police shooting he’s heard of.
Bennett quickly clarified that he believed Philando Castile, the 32-year-old black man killed by a Minnesota police officer last year, was “innocent” as well. Bennett also represented Castile’s family.
By some accounts, Damond appears to fit the definition of the supposed “perfect victim” of a police shooting ― someone who does everything right and that everyone can empathize with, regardless of race or socioeconomic class. This idea is itself grounded in race, and it reveals a lot about how society at large views police violence and its victims. It also creates a problematic standard. We shouldn’t need to find anything “perfect” about police shootings or their casualties to understand that they’re tragic and, at times, entirely preventable.
Let’s not overthink this: Damond was innocent. But Bennett’s description of her as “the most innocent” is telling, in that it makes an unnecessary, hierarchical ranking of which lives we believe are the most valuable ― and therefore which killings we believe are the least justified.