John Thompson rushed to the news conference at Ramsey County Attorney John Choi’s office Wednesday morning. He was expecting that no charges would be filed against the police officer who killed his friend and co-worker Philando Castile during a July 6 traffic stop in Falcon Heights.
The black community’s trust in police is low, Thompson said, as is its confidence in the judicial system.
He was shocked to hear Choi state that St. Anthony police officer Jeronimo Yanez was not justified in using deadly force against Castile.
“I cried in front of all those men,” said Thompson, who has been protesting on behalf of Castile for several months. Choi “did something big today. He said, not in Minnesota, not in Ramsey County, will we tolerate this.”
More than four months after Castile was fatally shot inside his car and his dying breaths transmitted live via Facebook, manslaughter charges against Yanez were met with tears and relief from Castile’s friends and family.
Valerie Castile, Philando’s mother, thanked Choi for his decision. “It’s the beginning to a different chapter,” she said at a midday news conference at her attorney’s office, flanked by her daughter and three siblings. “We hope that the right thing is done in this chapter.”
“We see this as a historic decision,” her attorney, Glenda Hatchett said. “We also see this as an important signal to this nation.”
She added that the family understands this is going to be a long process. “We prefer for it to be thorough than to be fast. We want justice to be done.”
The family also called for restraint in any protests over the severity of the charges. “We want peace,” Valerie Castile said.
“It’s a step in the right direction for achieving some semblance of justice,” said Nekima Levy-Pounds, former head of the Minneapolis NAACP, who is running for mayor of Minneapolis. “The system has at last shown a willingness for accountability of its officers.”
At an afternoon gathering of pastors and community leaders, the St. Paul NAACP and the Black Ministerial Alliance hailed the charges against Yanez as courageous, but “common sense.”
“There is no reason for Philando Castile to no longer be with us,” said African-American Leadership Council President Tyrone Terrill. “Just because you’re an officer doesn’t give you a right to execute an innocent man.”
Ruling disappoints police
The head of the largest association representing Minnesota police officers said in a statement Wednesday that the “police community is disappointed by the charging decision.”
Dennis Flaherty, head of the Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association, which represents Yanez, said, “We are certainly familiar with and respect the judicial process. We expect that officer Yanez will enter a plea of not guilty and will fully litigate every issue within the case in a court of law.”
He added that “no one can speak for officer Yanez as to what he actually encountered and what he feared that evening. We hope all people can understand and refrain from judgment.”
A spokesman for the Minnesota chapter of the National Latino Police Association said his group “stands behind officer Yanez.”
“We support him and he’s a good man,” said John Lozoya, who’s an officer with the St. Paul Police Department.
“Our biggest concern is that he receives a fair trial,” Lozoya said. “We don’t want outside influences trying to push the trial in a certain direction.”
St. Anthony Police Chief Jon Mangseth declined to comment and referred to a statement posted Wednesday on the city’s website.
“We have confidence that justice will be served,” the statement said. “The city intends to refrain from making any comments that could hinder a fair and impartial determination.”
At J.J. Hill school
A unity rally Wednesday night drew about 100 people to J.J. Hill Montessori Magnet School, where Castile worked as a cook.
The demonstration, planned in anticipation of a “no charges” ruling, became more celebratory, with activists asserting that grass-roots activism played an important role in Choi’s eventual decision.
“We haven’t won the war, but we won a battle,” said Loretta VanPelt, of Minneapolis, a leader with the Twin Cities Coalition for Justice for Jamar.
Speakers then headed in the direction of Interstate 94.
Marchers wound through some of St. Paul’s busiest streets, briefly blocking intersections and the light rail on University Avenue.
Some angry activists scrawled anti-police messages and profanities in paint on the glass doors of the St. Paul Police Western District on Hamline Avenue.
On the way back to the school, protesters became enraged when they spotted a home with large confederate flag in the window. Many began yelling, condemning it as a symbol of racism, when one lone anarchist slashed a tire on the homeowner’s truck parked in the driveway.
Repair to take time
State Sen. Jeff Hayden, DFL-Minneapolis, said the charging decision is a starting point in repairing some of the skepticism of the criminal justice system by minority communities, but it will still take many years to heal.
The video evidence recorded by Reynolds “really elevated this case to something that people hadn’t seen so much because he was actually taking his last breaths in front of the whole world,” said Hayden.
Levy-Pounds said that, even before Choi’s decision, she was hopeful the officer would be charged because in this case it seemed “more obvious that an injustice had been done.”
She watched the news conference with a fellow civil rights activist on her couch and sobbed after hearing the shooting was ruled unjustified.
Levy-Pounds applauded Choi for declining to use a grand jury, but said systemic changes remain necessary in policing to improve the climate between communities of color and local law enforcement.
And with a possible trial pending, “it’s far from over,” she said.
Staff writers Ricardo Lopez and Brandon Stahl contributed to this report.