After a year and a half of intense criticism and scrutiny of its policing practices, Falcon Heights made it official: Starting Jan. 1, the 6,000-resident suburb will be patrolled by Ramsey County sheriff’s deputies.
The Falcon Heights City Council voted unanimously for the change on Wednesday night, 16 months after a St. Anthony police officer shot and killed Philando Castile. Falcon Heights has contracted with St. Anthony for police services for 22 years; St. Anthony had at least one squad car in the city 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
The contract with the Sheriff’s Office guarantees residents will receive the same level of service. It will, however, cost significantly more.
Falcon Heights paid $670,000 annually to St. Anthony. It will pay $1 million “and some change” to the Ramsey County Sheriff’s Office, said city administrator Sack Thongvanh.
That increased cost will be passed on to residents. How much each homeowner will have to pay is not yet clear. Property tax statements will be firmed up in December, but there will be a hike.
A 34 percent tax hike was initially proposed. That has been lowered to a maximum levy of 24 percent, thanks to the city taking $150,000 from its reserve fund, Thongvanh said.
City officials had little choice. Although Falcon Heights had an opt-out clause in its contract with St. Anthony, it was the St. Anthony City Council that voted July 11 to end the contract.
Thongvanh sent 10 letters to law enforcement agencies in the area asking if they would be interested in policing the city. The only positive response was from the Sheriff’s Office.
Thongvanh said Wednesday that Falcon Heights will be part of a seven-member cities group patrolled by Ramsey County deputies. He said he met with the group last week to learn their processes and procedures.
“It was kind of an eye-opener,” he said. “They talked about a lot of different things, things that were going well, things they thought needed to be changed in terms of patrolling all the cities.”
Under the contract with St. Anthony, Thongvanh said, he only met with police officials twice a year; the council also heard from the chief when he presented the annual report.
The county meets monthly with the cities group to talk about what is working and what needs improvement.
“That’s the time they also provide updates on other communities, too,” Thongvanh said. “Things happening [that] might trickle down to our community.”
Falcon Heights officials know that their small community has been and will continue to be in a national and international spotlight following Castile’s shooting.
He was killed July 6, 2016, by former St. Anthony officer Jeronimo Yanez during a routine traffic stop at Larpenteur Avenue and Fry Street.
Yanez, who reached a termination agreement with St. Anthony, was acquitted of all charges in Castile’s death. Protests, rallies and marches intensified after the jury’s verdict.
The Sheriff’s Office is aware of that spotlight, too, Thongvanh said.
Mayor Peter Lindstrom said he’s impressed by what he’s seen so far of the Sheriff’s Office’s operations in terms of data collection, indemnification and personnel matters.
Sheriff’s officials are open to many of the recommendations from Falcon Height’s task force on policing, Lindstrom said.
“I’m entering into this contract with my eyes wide open,” he said.
The Sheriff’s Office has promised 24/7 patrol coverage, but that doesn’t mean a patrol car will be in the city every minute of every day, Thongvanh said. If the designated Falcon Heights squad is needed for an emergency elsewhere, the city will have to rely on mutual aid from St. Anthony, Roseville or another city, he said.
“They still might see a St. Anthony patrol car here,” Thongvanh said.
Thongvanh also added that, as with St. Anthony, Falcon Heights will have no say in hiring or firing decisions within the Sheriff’s Office. Monthly meetings, though, will allow for recommendations from Falcon Heights and the other communities.
Lindstrom said he wants to hold at least two open houses for residents to meet the deputies who will be patrolling the city. Council Member Randy Gustafson suggested residents participate in a citizens’ academy with the Sheriff’s Office. Sheriff’s Cmdr. Rich Clark, who oversees the cities group, has said that deputies would attend council meetings, have daily or weekly conversations with city staff and participate in community events.
The vote to approve the contract was 3-0. Gustafson works as a public information officer for the Sheriff’s Office and abstained from the vote. Council Member Pamela Harris was not at the meeting.
Thongvanh said he expects that there will be a “learning curve” and possibly “some road bumps” as residents get accustomed to a different style of law enforcement.
As for community response so far, “A lot of it is just let’s see and watch and see what type of service we get and go from there. A lot of people, I think, they just accept that the council is going to do the right thing.”