Thoughts on the Mohamed Noor Trial

Everyone's DistancedThe 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.

Cars Internet Guns and Drones Create Distance


Andy Singer

About Andy Singer

Andy Singer is doing his second tour as volunteer co-chair of the Saint Paul Bicycle Coalition. He works as a professional cartoonist and illustrator and has authored four books including his last, "Why We Drive," which examines environmental, land use and political issues in transportation. You can see more of his cartoons at

10 thoughts on “Thoughts on the Mohamed Noor Trial

  1. Brian

    Are the officers just supposed to walk everywhere? That will really help 911 response times for true emergencies.

  2. Andrew Evans

    I’m not sure what this had to do with a car, other than they were in one.

    The dude shouldn’t have been qualified to be a cop. How in the world is having your gun drawn, on a potential rape call, then getting so jumpy as to shoot what could have been the potential victim, anywhere close to standard procedure for that type of call? They should have been on the lookup for a female doing exactly the same thing, and ready to help her rather than shoot at her…

    The guy also had another case against him on a different call that he handled very poorly.

    He shouldn’t have been on the force, or at the very least shouldn’t have been partnered with someone new.

  3. Mark

    Normally I find the Streets articles interesting and well thought out, but honestly trying to make the connection between a car and this shooting just comes across as click-bait.

    A couple things, even in NYC, one of the densest urban environments around, the police still use cars. A police car is a tool, it allows faster response times, offers storage space for additional supplies, allows offenders to be transported, and does offer some level of protection for the officers.

    Several of your examples show the fault of poor officer training and are not directly attributable to cars.

    I mean I’m all for vilifying cars & freeways, but this article just doesn’t do that IMO.

    1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

      I think Andy is trying to make an observation about connecting with people and police technology, the car being one and the gun being the other. We often talk about guns but not as much about cars.

      I’ve heard lots of discussion about police training and accountability and “community policing” approaches and one important aspect is how cars are used. Bike cops or beat cops are two ways that police can relate better to the communities they serve, for example. I have actually chatted with police about bicycle patrols a few times and I get the sense that it does change how you engage or observe and are observed by people. It’s a question worth thinking about…

      1. Rich

        A few years ago I bought an older Mazda Miata and drove it top down as much as possible. The impact on my interaction with cyclists and pedestrians was significant. I couldn’t help but notice them and often engage them. Closed up cars insulate their drivers from everything, it’s numbing.

        1. Andrew Evans

          A few years ago I bought a older Porsche 911 (996), and tend to drive it with the top down as much as possible. Granted, I do have louder exhaust than most normal cars, but I’ve found about the same level of interaction with pedestrians and bikers. Due to my motorcycle training class, and being a pedal biker in a past life, I tend to try my best to notice pedestrians and bikes anyway, and be a safe driver, in any vehicle I’m operating.

          My level of interaction with the city is about the same. I don’t seem to notice any more or any less of the city than in a regular car. Walking is still the best way if a person really wants to see the community, since I’d even argue that biking safely on the street takes too much attention away from exploring what’s around.

          Doing it again, I’m not sure I’d buy another convertible. It’s louder to ride in, regardless of the exhaust, especially on the hiway with all the other vehicles around, and really, although the car is loud, the hiway noise is the worst. The back plastic window was terrible new, and worse now, 911’s can be terrible to back up anyway, and this makes that even worse. Plus the top on any older car, if it is motorized, can be a ticking expensive time bomb waiting to go off.

          That said, and maybe to Bill’s point about getting police on foot. Sadly that may not happen. Right now iirc MPD has their hands full with calls, and doesn’t have time for traffic let alone for self directed or inspector directed patrols on foot or bike. I thought too, that they are having a hard enough time filling open positions, let alone another 20-30 extra. Then too I’m not sure the city council would give them the money. Even if that did happen, the demographics wouldn’t be PC and the whole program would be shut down once those numbers started coming out.

          it’s a nice thought, and I’m in favor of broken glass police work as well. However I’m not sure it’s something that could be implemented.

  4. tulakn

    An armed force shooting the public they are sworn to protect. Foolishly, set adrift, excuses, which defy the surface the –body of evidence, shuns and cast-off, it is called unaccountability.

    Since, State and House of Congress Legislators cannot create laws, which would connect the police to logical gun shootings –then it is time to consider introducing an unarmed police force to interact with the public, for safety sake. Maybe, this unarmed police force can do what the regular police have proven they cannot do, render policing based on a principle they are willing to take risks, for.

    1. Brian

      How many people would want a job as an unarmed officer? What unarmed officer is going to confront an armed suspect without a way to defend themselves?

      If your house is being sprayed with gunfire do want to call 911 and be told it will take 15 minutes for an armed officer to arrive? (Yes, I realize this is a very rare event unlike what they show on TV and in movies.)

      1. Monte Castleman

        The typical criminal that wants to shoot a police officer isn’t going to chivalrous enough to let the police officer go back and get his or her weapon first to allow it to be a fair fight.

      2. Andrew Evans

        The thing is Brian that a lot of those same people will also argue for repealing the 2nd and eliminating our right to be able to protect ourselves and our property.

        If your house is being sprayed with gunfire, you’d want to be able to defend yourself in kind while waiting for police.

        Regrettably I’ve had someone break into my house while I was home. Thankfully the alarm scared them off, and the company called the police who were there in around 5 min. Also thankfully I was able to clear the house with my handgun and ensure that the cats were safe a as well as that the threats/criminals were gone. Yes, this isn’t the movies, and I did a painfully awkward job clearing, but everything worked as it should – other than I’m not sure the criminals were caught.

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