A yoga and meditation teacher living in Minneapolis was fatally shot by police Saturday night after she called 911 to report a possible assault in the alley behind her home.
The woman was identified by family in local and Australian news reports as 40-year-old Justine Damond (nee Justine Ruszczyk), a native Australian who studied to be a veterinarian in Sydney before moving to Minneapolis to be with her fiance, Don Damond. The couple planned to marry next month, but Justine Damond had already taken her fiance’s last name.
The call for help came in just before 11:30 p.m. Saturday, according to a news release from the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, the state agency investigating the shooting. Two Minneapolis Police Department officers went to an alley near her home in the Fulton neighborhood, on the city’s southwest side.
“At one point an officer fired their weapon, fatally striking a woman,” the statement said.
But the BCA offered few other details on what precipitated the shooting and, it said, neither of the responding officers had turned on their body cameras before the shooting. The squad car camera did not capture the incident, either.
Investigators are looking into whether other video of the shooting exists, the BCA statement said. When the state investigation is completed, the results will be given to the office of Hennepin County Attorney Michael O. Freeman for a review of whether any charges should be filed. A spokesman for Freeman declined to comment Monday about the shooting.
All Minneapolis police officers have worn body cameras since the end of 2016, according to the city, a policy decision that was announced last July, after a black motorist named Philando Castile was fatally shot by a police officer in the Twin Cities area.
“We all want to know more; I want to know more,” Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges said at a news conference Sunday afternoon. “I call on the BCA … to share as much information as they can as quickly as they possibly can.”
The mayor, who represented the Fulton area as a city council member, called the shooting a “tragic incident” and said she has questions about why the officers’ body cameras were not turned on.
“Tonight, I’m sad, and disturbed,” Hodges wrote on Facebook Sunday night. “This is a tragedy — for the family, for a neighborhood I know well, and for our whole city. … There is a long road of healing ahead, and a lot of work remains to be done. I hope to help us along that path in any way I can.
Authorities told the Minneapolis Star Tribune that the officers have been placed on paid administrative leave, which is standard procedure in officer-involved shootings.
Three people “with knowledge of the incident” told the Star Tribune that the responding officers pulled into the alley behind Damond’s home. The woman, wearing pajamas, approached the driver’s side door and was talking to the driver, reported the Star Tribune. The officer in the passenger seat shot Damond through the driver’s side door, the three people told the newspaper.
When asked about the Star Tribune report, Jill Oliveira, spokeswoman for the BCA, said only that the investigation is in the very early stages and the state agency will provide details as they become available.
The scant details have left Damond’s friends and family in shock and confused over the circumstances that led to her death.
“Basically, my mom’s dead because a police officer shot her for reasons I don’t know,” Zach Damond, Justine Damond’s stepson-to-be, said in a video posted to the Women’s March Minnesota Facebook page. “I demand answers. If anybody can help, just call the police and demand answers. I’m so done with all this violence.”
He added: “America sucks. These cops need to get trained differently. I need to move out of here.”
Don Damond was away on a business trip when the shooting occurred. His son, Zach, said his future stepmother heard a sound in the alley so she called police “and the cops showed up.”
“She was a very passionate woman, and she probably — she thought something bad is happening,” the 22-year-old said. “Next thing I know, they take my best friend’s life.”
Nancy Coune, office administrator for the Lake Harriet Spiritual Community Center, where Damond has worked as a Sunday speaker and meditation teacher for the past 2 1/2 years, described her as a “nonviolent” person.
“She’s not the type to provoke somebody. She would’ve maybe stepped in and helped somebody,” Coune told The Washington Post. “It’s quite unbelievable … She was sweet. She was beautiful. She was kind. She had a bright light about her. Everybody wanted to be her friend, and this happened to her? In a very low-crime-rate neighborhood? Nobody understands.”
Coune said Damond and her fiance have both devoted their time to making people’s lives better and had talked about helping improve race relations in Minneapolis. Don Damond is a volunteer at a local prison, where he teaches meditation, Coune said.
Despite Damond’s sudden death, Coune said she and others at the community center are not angry.
“Because that’s so opposite of what Justine was and what we actually teach and practice here,” she said.
Damond’s death has become a top story in Australia, where her photo is splashed across the top of major news sites. Those same sites reported that the shooting has also shocked and confused friends back home.
“How someone teaching meditation and spreading love can be shot dead by police while in her pajamas is beyond comprehension,” Matt Omo, Damond’s friend, told the Australia Broadcasting Corporation.
Alisa Monaghan, another friend, said Damond moved to the United States to “follow her heart” and to find “new life,” the ABC reported.
Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade said it is providing consular assistance to Damond’s family.
In a statement released by the agency, Damond’s family in Australia said: “This is a very difficult time for our family. We are trying to come to terms with this tragedy and to understand why this has happened. We will not make any further comment or statement and ask that you respect our privacy. Thank you.”
Friends and family are demanding a federal investigation into her death, News.com.au reported. A Justice Department spokesman declined to comment Monday.
Damond attended high school in Australia and graduated from the University of Sydney with a bachelor’s of veterinary science degree in 2002, according to the ABC.
Her personal and business website says she was a qualified yoga instructor, meditation teacher and a personal health and life coach.
The website says Damond’s “interest in supporting people to heal and transform themselves developed after she saw family members suffer greatly from depression, alcoholism and cancer.”
It continued: “After losing much of her family to cancer she has spent many years on a personal investigative journey to discover how habits and disease develop, and how people can change and live in joy, expressing their full potential.”
Three mayoral candidates, Minneapolis NAACP officials and about 250 other friends, family and community members attended a vigil Sunday night where Damond was shot.
“Many of us who have been on the front lines have been warning the public, saying if they would do this to our fathers and our sons and our brothers and our sisters and our mothers, they will do it to you next,” said Nekima Levy-Pounds, one of the candidates and a civil rights attorney. “I really hope that this is a wake-up call for this community to stop allowing things to be divided on the lines of race and on the lines of socio-economic status.”
Friends and neighbors called her a “peaceful, lovely woman” who loved animals and helping others.
“This woman was a beautiful light,” Bethany Bradley of Women’s March Minnesota said at the vigil. “She was a healer. She was loved. And she should be alive. She should still be here.”
Damond is one of at least 524 people fatally shot by police in the United States this year, and the fifth such person in Minnesota, according to a Washington Post database tracking such deaths. Among people shot by police, she represents an outlier: Men make up the overwhelming majority of people fatally shot by officers. Damond is at least the 23rd woman fatally shot by an officer this year, accounting for just over 4 percent of all fatal police shootings.
Damond’s death is the latest to draw scrutiny to how police officers in the Twin Cities area use deadly force.
Last year, an officer from a suburb fatally shot Philando Castile, a local school worker, during a traffic stop that was partially streamed online. Castile’s death in July 2016 set off heated demonstrations that continued for weeks. Protests flared up again last month when a jury acquitted Jeronimo Yanez, the officer who shot Castile, on all counts.
Just weeks before Castile’s death, federal authorities said they would not bring criminal charges in a November 2015 shooting involving Minneapolis police officers. Two officers fatally shot 24-year-old Jamar Clark, whose death sparked demonstrations. The prosecutor announced last year that the officers would not be charged, saying they believed he was trying to grab one of their guns.
A month before Castile’s death, the Justice Department said the officers would not face federal civil rights charges.
Clark’s death prompted a wave of protests outside a Minneapolis police station, demonstrations that eventually saw a burst of violence. Gunfire near the protests injured five demonstrators in November 2015, and prosecutors charged a group of men with the shootings. Last month, two men in that case pleaded guilty, while another had been sentenced to 15 years in prison.
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