The shooting of Justine Ruszczyk Damond, by police officer Mohamed Noor could have happened in many contexts, but the fact that it happened in a car tells us a lot about the problem of car culture in our society. Ruszczyk, an Australian living in a fairly affluent neighborhood in Minneapolis had called the police to report a possible sexual assault in the alley behind her home. Mohamed Noor and another officer responded and had just driven through the alley when Ruszczyk approached their car in her pajamas and was inexplicably shot and killed by Noor. Neither officer had their body cameras turned on at the moment of the shooting.
At the start of their shifts, Noor’s supervisor, Lieutenant Daniel May frequently lectured his officers on the dangers of “Ambushes,” though most of his examples were from other cities or so long ago as to be irrelevant. At Noor’s trial, the defense maintained that these lectures were enough to instill fear in his officers and that Ruszczyk knocked on the car when she approached it. This startled Noor and his partner, causing Noor to shoot her from the car, fearing an ambush. This may or may not be what really happened but it begs the question: How else do you get the attention of someone in a car? You can’t call to them. They are totally insulated from you and their surroundings and that’s a big problem. As a pedestrian, I’ve slapped cars that were about to run over me. It startled drivers, some of whom got enraged, but how else am I going to get their attention?
Being in an insulated glass, metal and plastic box diminishes your ability to judge situations outside your vehicle and react appropriately. Many of the high profile police shootings of unarmed civilians involve police officers jumping out of a car into a situation they don’t fully understand. Watch the video of Cleveland police officers shooting a 12-year-old child, Tamir Rice, playing with a bb-gun, alone, in a park. They basically drive up and shoot him as they exit the car. There’s no pause to assess the situation or call out to the kid, who probably had no idea what was happening. Shootings like this remind me of incidents in Iraq and Afghanistan involving troops in armored vehicles who end up killing civilians.
Road-rage incidents also have a certain similarity. Like police shootings, a mixture of fear, and sometimes anger or adrenaline contribute to these. And like other kinds of shootings, motor vehicles play a big roll. The car offers protection and speed, allowing people the ability to do something awful and flee the scene. It could be intentional, like a driver shouting or throwing something at a cyclist because they think it’s funny and they can zoom past and don’t have to face the consequences. Or it can be unintentional and oblivious, like a driver failing to pay attention to the road because they’re drunk, speeding, texting or adjusting the radio, and then hitting a pedestrian. Hit-and-run incidents often happen this way. The car enables the hit and then allows the perpetrator to flee the scene.
To the degree that we design our communities around automobiles, we all play a role in these shootings. We build highways through or over “undesirable” places to get from the “desirable” suburbs or residential neighborhoods to our jobs. By designing our cities and suburbs around cars, we enable a form of escapism and allow ourselves to be oblivious to the places we’re passing through. It ends up becoming a kind of violence, a violence that is baked into the design of our cities and suburbs.
On foot or on a bicycle, you can feel the air temperature, hear voices and other sounds, smell odors, call out to people, and hear their responses. You’re literally in touch with your environment. In a car, you’re not. Most Twin Cities neighborhoods are so suburban and spread out that they defy “Community policing”. It would be difficult for an officer to cover the distances they’re expected to on foot or even on bicycles. But being on foot or on a bike might give them a lot more knowledge of the communities with whom they interact and might enable more accurate assessments of situations. That’s true for all of us.