Valerie Castile’s nightmare of losing her son at the hands of police hasn’t ended, and she made that clear Wednesday night at a panel discussion on police-community relations at Elim Lutheran Church in Robbinsdale.
Her son, Philando Castile, 32, was fatally shot July 6, 2016, by a St. Anthony police officer during a traffic stop in Falcon Heights. The officer, Jeronimo Yanez, was acquitted of all charges at trial. He later agreed to leave the department.
While Castile’s mother is still deep in grief and anger, she was measured and reasoned as she spoke to the panel made up of Assistant Minneapolis Police Chief Art Knight, Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman, Ramsey County Attorney John Choi and Hennepin County District Judge Mark Kappelhoff.
“It’s been 490 days — one year, four months and two days — since I held my son,” she said. “Every day of my life is a struggle … because my son is not here. Because he told the truth, and he was killed by the police and twelve people said, ‘That’s OK.’ ”
“I’m not mad at the police,” she added. “I want to work with them. Everybody should be held accountable for what they do. Until you acknowledge there’s a problem, there will still be a problem.”
Those were the themes of Wednesday night’s discussion: Civil discussion, honest questions and answers.
“There’s been an erosion of trust in the judicial system and the police,” pastor Harding Smith told the panel and the audience of about 100. “How do we get that back? We need to sit down and talk about these things across the table.”
Freeman was asked when his office had successfully prosecuted a “bad cop.”
“Four weeks ago,” he said, explaining that a jury convicted a former Minneapolis officer of first-degree assault for kicking a man in the face.
“We do the best we can, regardless of race,” the veteran prosecutor said. “If people’s actions break the law, our job is to prosecute them.”
Choi was asked if his office did everything it could to ensure a guilty verdict for Yanez and, if so, why the officer was acquitted.
“We put our heart and soul into that case,” he said. “I know many aren’t happy with the outcome.”
Steve Belton, president of the Minneapolis Urban League, told the panel and audience, “Our community lives in this incredible sense of tension right now, wanting justice and at the same time distrusting the process.”
He said he has had two seemingly unjust interactions with police, yet “I like the police, I love the police. My brother is a police officer.”
Belton said inherent bias exists. “We have to recognize it, name it and out it. We cannot call for change is we are not willing to accept change,” he said. “We cannot call for peace and refuse to embrace peace. Be vigilant for injustice, but always ready for reconciliation.”
Knight was asked about body cameras and disciplining officers; Kappelhoff about racial bias in the justice system; Freeman and Choi about bias in the courts.
John Thompson, an activist who has emerged as a leader since his friend Castile died, got the last word.
“Please strive to bring some humanity back to that job,” he told police. “The community didn’t break the trust. The only way we can fix this is together.”