Dan Sherman watched the ambulance speed by that night on his way home from class. He saw the squad cars and the crowd beginning to gather. But he didn’t find out that a police officer shot and killed a man just yards from his front door until hours later, when he saw video of the aftermath online.
“It’s scary to see that in your backyard,” said Sherman. “I didn’t think that was an issue we’d really be dealing with here.”
Today, a canopy sits in the sidewalk adjacent to the 22-year-old’s apartment building on the corner of Larpenteur Avenue and Fry Street in Falcon Heights, marking the spot where a St. Anthony police officer shot a black man named Philando Castile. The memorial is decorated with fresh flowers, mylar balloons and handwritten messages pleading for an end to racially biased policing in America.
“Dismantle White Supremacy and Racial Oppression,” reads one sign. “Stop Killing Black Men,” another demands.
Since the July 6 shooting, Falcon Heights residents have been learning what it’s like to be famous. Within hours of the shooting — which occurred the day after another black man, Alton Sterling, was shot and killed by Baton Rouge, La., police — the Castile case rapidly became the most intense discussion on social media platforms. The story dominated national headlines by morning. Graphic video of the aftermath, which was live-streamed by Castile’s girlfriend on Facebook, has been viewed by millions, making Falcon Heights a focal point for race relations and policing in America. One day after the shooting, President Obama referenced Falcon Heights by name, calling the shooting, along with others like it, “symptomatic of the broader challenges within our criminal justice system.”
Jeronimo Yanez, the St. Anthony police officer who shot Castile, remains on administrative leave as the investigation continues.
It’s not the kind of attention the small suburb, on the northwest edge of St. Paul, ever wanted. As state police investigate the shooting and protesters demand swift change, Falcon Heights residents and local government officials say they hope to turn the conversations sparked by the shooting into a moment of positive change — and not be remembered as yet another scene of a police officer shooting a black man.
“This incident has ripped into the fabric of our small community,” the town’s mayor, Peter Lindstrom, said in one of the few public comments made shortly after the shooting. He did not respond to multiple requests for comment this week.
Days after the shooting, the Falcon Heights City Council called an emergency meeting to approve $50,000 to deal with the fallout and to approve money for the city to hire a public relations firm. At a recent meeting, City Administrator Sack Thongvanh was frank about the challenge facing Falcon Heights workers, most of whom are new to city government.
“They’ve never dealt with a situation like this, and neither have I,” he said.
A speck on the map
Falcon Heights is a roughly 2 ¼ square miles, home to about 5,500 people, which includes a transient population of University of Minnesota students. It’s so small that it doesn’t have its own police department — which is why it contracts with St. Anthony’s — and the mayor uses a Gmail address for official correspondence. About 73 percent of the population is white, according to the most recent census data.
“I can tell my mom I live in Falcon Heights, and she’s like, ‘What’s Falcon Heights?’ ” said Sherman. “It’s just a little speck on the map.” Another resident compared it to Pleasantville, the “Leave It to Beaver”-like suburb in the eponymous 1998 movie.
The night of the shooting, hundreds gathered while investigators collected evidence and took photographs of Castile’s car. Many in the crowd screamed with frustration at the officers securing the scene, some calling them “terrorists” and pleading for an end to the madness.
When the sun came up, many protesters had moved on to the governor’s residence, but a crowd still lingered at the intersection.
Among them was Benjamin Toso, who lives down the street. After hearing initial reports that Castile was shot after telling the officer he had a permit to carry a gun, Toso strapped on his pistol and walked over to show solidarity for the right to legally possess a firearm.
“I just wanted to show people that I have a conceal-and-carry, too,” said Toso, emphasizing the level of safety training gun owners must pass to get the permit. If the officer did shoot Castile because he had a permit to carry, said Toso, “It just defies logic.”
“If what he did say is true, it’s a tragedy that he told the officer he had a license to carry, because you’re not required to say anything,” he said.
Toso has lived in Falcon Heights for 24 years, and though he’s skeptical that the officer acted appropriately in shooting Castile, he said he’s never seen evidence of racial tension involving police officers.
Gary Kwong concurred. Kwong has lived here since 1982 and said Falcon Heights doesn’t have the same systemic problems as Ferguson, Mo. — another small town that became notorious after a police officer shot a black man in 2014. Kwong said he’s seen the Falcon Heights area growing more diverse in recent years.
Kwong is of Chinese descent, making him among a minority of nonwhite people living in Falcon Heights. In his 34 years here, he’s had minimal interaction with police outside the community engagement committee, of which he’s a member, and has never felt racially profiled.
In regard to the shooting, Kwong said he’s reserving his opinions until more information comes out.
“I know people want to have a quick answer, but I think you have to get the facts first,” he said.
Hoping for positive change
Tony Fisher hopes something positive can emerge from the Castile tragedy.
A week after the shooting, Fisher, a Falcon Heights City Council member, said in a meeting that he was glad to see the incident getting so much attention, and he hopes it will lead to needed policy changes.
“This is bigger than a police problem, but goes to how we treat people who are different from ourselves,” Fisher said. “We need to know people who are different from ourselves, we need to befriend people who are different from ourselves and we need to care about people who are different from ourselves. Equally consequential to our actions is our silence.”
But many are skeptical, and serious change is easier said than done.
Rashad Turner, leader of Black Lives Matter in St. Paul, held a news conference in the aftermath of the shooting asking Falcon Heights to cut ties with the St. Anthony Police Department, accusing the officers of racial profiling.
Data show 41 percent of the people arrested by St. Anthony police last year were black in a three-city patrol area in which 6 percent of residents are black. A Star Tribune analysis shows that these disparities are common in metro-area communities.
In an interview, Fisher said the council didn’t have enough information yet to consider Turner’s demand.
“I don’t think we want to rush to any judgments,” he said. “I think we want to do this slow and do it the right way.”
At the July 13 council meeting, several community members also called on local government to be aggressive in its response to the shooting.
“I think such words are important, but I think actions are critical,” said Falcon Heights resident Sarah Chambers, quoting statements from Obama after the Dallas shooting of more than a dozen officers and calling for more police oversight in the community.
“Now that Falcon Heights has garnered both national and international attention, let’s set an example for both dialogue and action,” she said.