The lawyer for one of two Minneapolis police officers involved in the shooting death of an unarmed Australian woman said Wednesday that they may have feared an ambush.
Justine Damond was killed Saturday night when approaching a police car, after she had placed an emergency call reporting a possible rape taking place near her home in Minnesota.
One of the responding officers, Matthew Harrity, told investigators he had been startled by a loud noise just before the 40-year-old woman approached the car and his partner Mohamed Noor fired the deadly shot, authorities said.
Harrity's lawyer on Wednesday left open the possibility that the officers had feared an ambush, telling the Minneapolis Star Tribune newspaper that a similar scenario had recently played out in New York.
"It's certainly reasonable to assume that any police officer would be concerned about a possible ambush under these circumstances," the newspaper quoted attorney Fred Bruno as saying.
Bruno did not return calls seeking comment.
In the New York incident, a mentally ill man shot and killed officer Miosotis Familia while she was sitting in her vehicle with her partner on July 4.
The Minneapolis officers are both on standard administrative leave, pending the outcome of the probe. Noor has declined to speak with investigators.
If charges are warranted, it could be months before Hennepin County officials have all the evidence to file them, said spokesman Chuck Laszewski.
"That has been the history," Laszewski told AFP. "It's taken two to four months from the time of the incident."
The Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, the state agency in charge of investigating police shootings, told AFP it did not intend to release any further information for the time being.
As the investigation continued, Minneapolis police released transcripts Wednesday of the two emergency calls that Damond made.
"I can hear someone out the back and I, I'm not sure if she's having sex or being raped," Damond told the emergency operator, later describing the sounds she was hearing as "distressed."
Minutes later, the meditation and life coach who had moved to the US to marry her fiance called back to check if police were coming. The operator assured her that they were.
Harrity and Noor responded to the call with their emergency lights off. After Damond approached their squad car on the driver's side, reportedly still in her pajamas, Noor shot her from the passenger's seat.
She died at the scene of a gunshot wound to the abdomen, authorities said.
'Loud sound' preceded US police shooting Australian woman
Police in Minnesota were startled by a loud sound prior to fatally shooting an unarmed Australian woman who had called them to report a possible assault, US investigators revealed Tuesday.
The state agency probing the killing of Justine Damond, also known by her maiden name Justine Ruszczyk, interviewed one of the two officers who responded to her emergency call on Saturday night in Minneapolis.
It was the first time since the incident that authorities offered more information about the circumstances, as community leaders and Damond's family complained they had few details over a killing that reverberated in her native Australia.
Damond had called Minneapolis police Saturday around 11:30 pm to report a possible assault occurring near her home. Two officers responded with their police car's emergency lights off.
Officer Matthew Harrity told investigators Tuesday that he had been "startled by a loud sound" near the squad car just before Damond approached, the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA) said in a statement.
His partner, Officer Mohamed Noor, was in the passenger seat.
"Harrity indicated that Officer Noor discharged his weapon, striking Ruszczyk through the open driver's side window," the agency said.
The BCA did not identify the startling sound, but an unidentified officer recorded on a police radio conversation published by the website Minnesota PoliceClips, speculated it may have been fireworks that sounded like gun shots.
After the shooting, the officers provided medical aid until paramedics arrived, but Damond died at the scene of a gunshot wound to the abdomen, authorities said.
The officers' body-worn cameras were not on during the incident, and investigators appealed for witnesses to come forward.
Meanwhile, Minneapolis officials pressed for patience, saying the state investigation took precedence and city authorities therefore had little information of their own to share.
"We don't have all the answers," Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges said at a Tuesday night news conference.
"But, the information the BCA shared this evening gets us closer to having answers, closer to seeing justice done," she said.
Damond, a 40-year-old meditation instructor and life coach, was an Australian national who had moved to the US to marry her fiance Don Damond - who on Monday had criticized a lack of information from investigators.
Her death reverberated around the world, from a makeshift memorial at the Lake Harriet Spiritual Community center where Damond worked, to her native Australia.
Hundreds of family and friends gathered for an emotional vigil at Sydney's Freshwater beach at daybreak on Wednesday, standing in silence and holding candles before casting pink flowers into the water.
In an interview with Australia's Channel Nine, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull on Wednesday expressed shock.
"It is inexplicable," he 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."
A day earlier, Damond's father John Ruszczyk addressed Australian media at a news conference, calling for justice.
"Justine was a beacon to all of us. We only ask that the light of justice shine down on the circumstances of her death," he said.
Officer 'a caring person'
Noor, who has been with the Minneapolis police force for 21 months, declined investigators' requests for an interview, the BCA said Tuesday.
"We cannot compel Officer Noor to make a statement," Mayor Hodges said, "I wish that he would... because he has a story to tell that no one else can tell."
In a statement, Noor's attorney Tom Plunkett called the officer "a caring person," who "empathizes with the loss others are experiencing." But Plunkett said ongoing investigations prevented the officer from saying any more.
There are three investigations, one conducted by the BCA which takes precedence, a police department use of force review, and a civilian oversight civil rights probe that has not yet begun.
Damond's case was the latest high-profile police shooting. Most others involved white police officers and African American victims. In this case, Noor is Somali American, while Damond was white.
"Justine's death shows no one should assume 'officer-involved shootings' only happen in a certain part of town or to certain kinds of people," Congressman Keith Ellison, who represents Damond's district in the US House of Representatives, said in a statement.
Relatives demand answers after Australian bride-to-be fatally shot by US cop
Relatives and neighbors of an Australian woman fatally shot by Minneapolis police over the weekend demanded answers Monday about the mysterious shooting in which the meditation teacher and bride-to-be was reportedly killed by an officer who fired from the passenger seat as the woman stood outside the driver's door.
Authorities released no details about what led to the shooting of Justine Damond, whose fiance said she had called 911 to report what she believed was a sexual assault in an alley near her home.
Police said only that officers were responding to a call about a possible assault late Saturday when she was killed. There were no known witnesses other than the two officers in the squad car that showed up. A newspaper report said Damond was shot while standing alongside the car in her pajamas.
Her fiancé, Don Damond, said the family has been given almost no additional information about what happened after police arrived.
"We've lost the dearest of people, and we're desperate for information," he said. "Piecing together Justine's last moments before the homicide would be a small comfort as we grieve this tragedy."
Damond's family members in Australia also released a statement Monday through Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, saying they "are trying to come to terms with this tragedy and to understand why this has happened."
Authorities did not release the woman's name, but the Star Tribune identified her as Damond, from Sydney, Australia. The newspaper reported that she was engaged to be married in August and was using her fiance's last name. Her maiden name was Justine Ruszczyk.
Almost two days after her death, police offered no public explanation and referred questions to the state's Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, which was investigating. A Monday statement from the BCA said more information would be provided once the officers were interviewed.
The BCA said Monday that no weapons were found at the scene.
Local media identified the officer who fired as Mohamed Noor, who is a Somali-American. A city newsletter said he joined the police department in March 2015.
His attorney, Tom Plunkett, released a statement saying Noor offered his condolences to the family "and keeps them in his daily thoughts and prayers."
The statement added: "He joined the police force to serve the community and to protect the people he serves. Officer Noor is a caring person with a family he loves, and he empathizes with the loss others are experiencing."
The Star Tribune, citing three people with knowledge of the shooting it did not name, said the officers pulled into the alley in a single squad car, and Damond talked to the driver. The newspaper's sources said the officer in the passenger seat shot Damond through the driver's-side door. A BCA spokeswoman did not return messages seeking to confirm that account.
Neighbor Joan Hargrave called the killing "an execution" and said there was no reason for a well-trained officer to see Damond as a threat.
"This is a tragedy — that someone who's asking for help would call the police and get shot by the police," Hargrave said.
Officials said the officers' body cameras were not turned on and that a squad car camera did not capture the shooting. Investigators were still trying to determine whether other video exists.
It's not clear why the officers' body cameras were not turned on. The department's policy allows for a range of situations in which officers are supposed to do so, including "any contact involving criminal activity" and before use of force. If a body camera is not turned on before use of force, it's supposed to be turned on as soon as it's safe to do so.
Once the investigation is complete, it would be up to Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman to decide whether to charge the officer.
Freeman would not comment on the broader case Monday, but said both officers likely should have turned on their body cameras as they were approached by Damond in an alley.
Police Chief Janee Harteau called the killing a "tragic death" and said she understands why the community has questions. "I've asked for the investigation to be expedited to provide transparency and to answer as many questions as quickly as we can," she said.
The Fulton neighborhood where the shooting happened is a mix of middle- and upper-middle-class homes about a half-mile from city lakes that are a popular destination for residents and tourists.
Some 50 friends and neighbors gathered in a semicircle Sunday near the shooting site, with many more looking on from the sidewalk and street. Chalk hearts containing the names of some people who were victims of police violence were drawn on the driveway.
By Monday, flowers had also been left at the scene, along with a handwritten sign that asked, "Why did you shoot and kill our neighbor?"
Damond's death is yet another high-profile police shooting in the Twin Cities area in recent years. Last year, 32-year-old Philando Castile was killed by an officer during a traffic stop in a nearby suburb after he told the officer he was armed. And in November 2015, a Minneapolis police officer shot and killed Jamar Clark during a struggle in which the officer said Clark grabbed his partner's weapon.
Damond's business website indicates that she relocated to Minneapolis and worked as a yoga instructor, meditation teacher and personal health and life coach.
Originally trained as a veterinarian, Damond indicted on the site that she was "most passionate about supporting individuals and organizations to discover the power and potential within their own brains and hearts."
Damond's mother was Australian, and she spent her formative years there, but also spent some of her early childhood in the Buffalo, New York, area, said Peter Suffoletto, a cousin of Damond's father.
Australian woman shot dead by US police after 911 call
An Australian woman was shot and killed by a Minneapolis police officer at the weekend, authorities said, and the city's mayor said she was "heartsick and deeply disturbed" over the incident and promised a full investigation.
"We all want to know more," Mayor Betsy Hodges said. "I want to know more."
Minneapolis police on patrol are equipped with body cameras but Hodges said they were not in operation in this incident.
"I have a lot of questions - questions like why the body cameras weren't on," Hodges said.
Police said they received a 911 call around 11:30 p.m. on Saturday. As officers responded to the scene, it turned into an officer-involved shooting, a senior police official said. A woman died as a result of the shooting.
Minneapolis police said in a statement the call pertained to a "possible assault" and that "at one point an officer fired their weapon, fatally striking a woman."
The victim was not identified, but media including The New York Times reported her name was Justine Damond, 40.
Damond, from Sydney, was engaged to an American man and the couple planned to marry in August, the Times said, citing Australian media.
Police and Hodges referred questions about the details of the shooting and the investigation to the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA), which is handling the case.
"As mayor of our city, a wife, and a grandmother, I am heartsick and deeply disturbed by what occurred last night," Hodges told a news conference on Sunday night.
Hodges said the BCA had reported that there was no body camera footage nor dashboard camera footage of the incident.
The mayor and police said the BCA would be releasing further information as soon as possible.