Stony the road we trod …
It is now three months since Philando Castile was shot dead by St. Anthony police officer Jeronimo Yanez. Castile’s girlfriend live-streamed the immediate aftermath and described how Castile was shot while reaching for his identification, as instructed, after explaining he had a permit to carry.
Last week, the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension completed its investigation into the incident and turned over the report to Ramsey County Attorney John Choi, who must now decide whether to charge Yanez in connection with the killing.
The sunshine of summer days is fast giving way to dark, cold nights. And still we wait, hoping despite history for some measure of justice.
It is also approaching one year since the unarmed Jamar Clark was shot in the head by Minneapolis police officer Dustin Schwarze after being choke-slammed to the ground by officer Mark Ringgenberg. In that case, Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman elected not to use a grand jury, a positive step for transparency and accountability. But Freeman then opted not to bring charges, accepting at face value the officers’ constructed narrative of the incident despite overwhelming contradictory eyewitness testimony and forensic evidence.
Since 2000, police in Minnesota have killed at least 151 people, disproportionately people of color, but not a single officer has even been indicted, let alone tried or convicted.
We have come over a way that with tears has been watered …
Philando Castile should not have been killed that night. We know that he was racially profiled. On police scanner audio, the reason for the stop is given as: “The two occupants just look like people that were involved in a robbery. The driver looks more like one of our suspects, just ’cause of the wide-set nose.”
The St. Anthony Police Department, like departments across Minnesota, disproportionately arrests people of color. Does anyone believe a white man in a suit would have been similarly instantly shot reaching for his identification?
Acknowledging a lack of trust between the police force and the community, St. Anthony applied last week to join the Collaborative Reform Initiative of the Department of Justice.
After shooting Castile, Yanez did not provide emergency aid but rather kept his gun aimed while yelling at Castile’s girlfriend to keep her hands visible — even as she was recording Castile’s life ebbing away, with her young daughter watching from the back seat.
We have come treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered.
Choi now stands at a pivotal moment. The familiar rationale in police shootings of “I feared for my life” is being increasingly challenged when video contradicts police narratives. In the last few months alone, the deaths of Alton Sterling, Korryn Gaines, Terence Crutcher, Keith Lamont Scott and others have generated widespread protest.
Nationally, recent incidents have seen video released within days. Yet dashcam video of the Castile stop has been withheld three months and counting — the ACLU recently resorted to filing a lawsuit for access. Videos from the Clark case were withheld for five months. While other departments add body cameras with sensible policies to protect both officers and citizens, Minnesota just adopted a bill that turns body cameras into surveillance tools while restricting citizen access.
In sharp contrast to our reputation, Minnesota doesn’t look progressive in terms of police accountability or racial disparities. We have heavy work to bring our state out from the gloomy past.
Choi should immediately follow Freeman’s lead by bypassing the secretive and biased grand jury process. Additionally, independent special prosecutors should handle police shootings to avoid the inevitable structural conflict of interest when county attorneys prosecute the same police upon whom they rely for other cases. Choi’s addition of Don Lewis to his team — as a so-called “special prosecutor” but without true independent power — does not eliminate that conflict.
Choi must not repeat Freeman’s missteps in the Clark case. In an apparent attempt to justify his decision, Freeman misstated or misrepresented several key facts related to charging standards, witness statements, Clark’s behavior and forensic evidence, as we have previously detailed. Freeman additionally evinced no curiosity about the remarkable cascade of policy violations committed by the officers, which include not responding promptly to the call, failing to activate the emergency lights and dashcam, using an illegal chokehold, using deadly force unnecessarily and making numerous false statements. Both Ringgenberg and Schwarze were previously accused of excessive force or brutality, and there was no apparent attempt to check for patterns of misconduct that may have been repeated against Clark.
With all of the evidence from the Castile shooting now resting in Choi’s Ramsey County office, the community is waiting for the words: “In the case of St. Anthony Police Officer Yanez, I will bring murder charges in the death of Philando Castile.”
Either the phones will be ringing with excitement because some justice will be served or the phones will be ringing with disappointment and frustration. When Choi gives his next news conference, will he acknowledge, as Gov. Mark Dayton did, that Castile was racially profiled and that he presented no threat? Were the consulted use-of-force experts selected for their willingness to excuse murder, as alleged in the Tamir Rice case? Or will they validate the common-sense perspective that Castile should not have died that night?
Will Choi’s decision liberate or haunt him? Will he be able to look his community and fellow attorneys in the eyes and profess that he did his best? Will he be able to face Castile’s mother the day after the announcement?
As a criminal-justice practitioner who is sworn to uphold the law and provide justice, will John Choi break with the shameful patterns of our state, and will we finally hold a police officer criminally accountable? Does black life have any value in Minnesota?
Minnesota residents need to know that this is a state that stands for justice. We hope Choi will deliver.
Facing the rising sun of our new day begun, let us march on till victory is won.
Jason Sole teaches criminal justice at Hamline and Metropolitan State universities and is chair of the Minneapolis NAACP Criminal Justice Reform Task Force. Rachel Wannarka is a member of the task force and is planning director at a Minnesota nonprofit providing treatment services to young people.