On the evening of July 15th, two Minneapolis police officers responded to a 911 call in the city’s upscale Fulton neighborhood. When the officers arrived, Justine Damond — a 40-year-old, white Australian woman wearing pajamas — emerged outside and stood next to the cruiser’s driver’s side window. She described the incident that caused her to call 911 — a possible sexual assault in the alleyway behind the home that she shared with her fiancé, whom she planned to marry the following month.
Because the two cops in the cruiser failed to record the interaction, it’s unclear what happened next. What we do know is that, during the interaction, the officer in the passenger’s seat, Mohamed Noor, pulled out his firearm and shot Damond through the driver’s side door, killing her. In the aftermath of Damond’s death, media reports focused on why the officer failed to turn on the body camera he was wearing.
He shouldn’t have had to.
Last year, the Minneapolis Police Department paid $55,800 for products designed to automatically record police interactions without officers having to worry about manually turning on their body cameras.
According to documents obtained by The Verge through Minnesota’s Freedom of Information Act, the department arranged to purchase 200 Axon Signal Units in March 2016. The Axon Signal Unit is an automatic recording product designed to be installed in a police cruiser. It is capable of turning on an officer’s body camera in a number of circumstances, such as when the cruiser’s light bar is engaged, when its crash sensors are activated, when it reaches a certain speed, when its front and rear doors are opened, or when nearby dashboard cameras or body cameras are switched on. “Signal guarantees that all footage goes recorded and saved,” according to online sales materials from Axon Enterprise, Minneapolis PD’s body camera provider.
The Axon Signal purchase is part of a five-year contract between Axon and Minneapolis PD that includes both body camera equipment and Taser weapons. The city agreed to pay about $4.7 million for the contract that outfitted the entire city’s police force with cameras. The $4.7 million is just part of a total bill of about $6.4 million over five years, the Star Tribune reported.
The police department paid for products designed to automatically record
Axon body cameras also record a 30-second buffer, so that the camera captures whatever occurred a half-minute prior to when the recording starts, saving it if the camera is activated. The Star Tribune reported that dashcam video was turned on in the officers’ squad car, which might have engaged Axon Signal and turned on other cameras within a 30-foot radius, depending on how the Signal Unit was configured. But representatives of the state’s Bureau of Criminal Apprehension said it did not capture the incident.
An Axon spokesman, Steve Tuttle, said it’s up to each agency to determine which kind of event — a light bar, for example, or a dashcam turning on — would then turn on surrounding body cameras.
“Some agencies have selected the use of the light bar or the siren and some include electronic gun rack locks, etc.,” Tuttle wrote in an email to The Verge. “While it can be applied to the opening of doors, that means it would do that every time the door is opened which many agencies have not selected to use.”
Tuttle said he could not comment on how Minneapolis’ police leaders designed the system to work: “I’m unaware as to how certain agencies have chosen to do this on each and every vehicle and/or motorcycle.”
Spokespeople for the Minneapolis PD did not respond to voice messages or emails seeking comment. A spokesman for Minneapolis’ mayor did not respond to requests via email and voice message seeking comment. A statement from Noor’s family, reported by USA Today, called the incident “unfortunate.” "We feel so bad about this, we are traumatized ourselves," the family’s statement read. "If you wait for the investigation you'll know it was an honest and sincere event that transpired. Until then we can't really say anything."
Minneapolis PD’s body camera policy requires that officers record video during any “critical incident” occurring in the line of duty. Though Axon Signal can engage body cameras when a cruiser’s lights are turned on, a report from the Star Tribune indicates the officers approaching Damond’s home had their lights turned off.
Minnesota ACLU interim director Teresa Nelson called for the release of the audio from the 911 call and any dash camera audio and / or video from the incident. The City of Minneapolis released transcripts of Damond’s 911 calls Wednesday, according to the Star Tribune.
“This violation of policy thwarted the public’s right to know what happened”
"By failing to turn on their body cameras when they encountered Ms. Damond, the two Minneapolis Police officers violated their department’s policy, 4-223, on body cameras,” Nelson said in a statement. “This violation of policy thwarted the public’s right to know what happened to Ms. Damond and why the police killed her. The two officers broke the policy not only when they didn’t activate the body cameras before the incident, but also when they failed to do so after the use of force.”
The incident comes at a time when body cameras — once a nearly universal answer to how communities could more effectively monitor and establish ties with local police — are becoming more controversial. State laws are clamping down on public access to body camera footage. And while products like Axon Signal are designed to ensure that body camera footage is captured — for the courts, if not necessarily for the public — incidents like this one show that it’s not foolproof solution. Meanwhile, Axon is embroiled in a long-standing court battle with a competitor, Digital Ally, over whether its auto-activation products violate a Digital Ally patent.
Damond’s death, and the circumstances surrounding it, have attracted worldwide attention.
The Associated Press reported on Wednesday, July 20th that Noor’s partner, Officer Matthew Harrity, told investigators he was startled by a loud sound near their car right before Noor shot and killed Damond.
Responses to the incident have been heated, especially in Damond’s native country of Australia.
Her hometown newspaper, The Daily Telegraph of Sydney, ran the front page headline “American nightmare.” The AP reported that news of her death was embedded into Australian national discussion — newspapers, radio, websites, and TV — for days.
“The country is infested with possibly more guns than people,” Philip Alpers, a gun policy analyst with the University of Sydney who has studied the stark differences in gun laws between the nations, told the AP. In Australia, strict regulations dictate who can own firearms. “We see America as a very risky place in terms of gun violence — and so does the rest of the world.”
Damond’s family and some 300 friends held a silent vigil for the woman on Wednesday on a Sydney beach.
Tuesday evening — Wednesday morning in Australia — Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull demanded answers on Australia’s Today Show.
“How can a woman out in the street in her pajamas seeking assistance from police be shot like that? It is a shocking killing,” Turnbull said. “We are demanding answers on behalf of her family. And our hearts go out to her family and all of her friends and loved ones. It’s a truly tragic, tragic killing there in Minneapolis.”
Correction: This article previously stated that the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension was a city organization. In fact, it is a state organization.