Federal officials heard from a cross-section of the public on Monday night as part of their scrutiny of the St. Anthony Police Department following the fatal shooting of Philando Castile during a traffic stop last July.
More than 200 people showed up in the gym of Falcon Heights Elementary school for the first of three listening sessions by the Justice Department’s office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS).
One Justice Department official warned that their eventual findings based on community input will not be court-mandated or binding. Said another federal official at the start: “We cannot investigate individual cases, but we can recognize patterns and practices in the department.”
They listened to story after story from people of varying ages and races.
Many black speakers told about police harassment and traffic stops for minor infractions. One person identified herself as a cousin of Castile. Many said they have no faith that anything will actually change, and many expressed frustration that there will be no justice for Castile.
“Philando got murdered because he ‘looked like’ somebody,” said John Thompson, a friend of Castile who worked with him J.J. Hill elementary school in St. Paul. Thompson said he was pulled over by police just yesterday for a broken turn signal. “They are terrorizing my community,” he said. “Every time those disco lights come on behind me, I am in fear for my life. I have zero faith in any process except for a full-blown investigation into the man who killed my friend.”
Federal authorities announced in December that they will spend at least the next two years auditing and seeking to improve the practices and policies of the St. Anthony Police Department in hopes of creating a model for law enforcement across the country.
St. Anthony city officials requested intervention from the Justice Department a few months ago after one of its officers, Jeronimo Yanez, fatally shot the 32-year-old Castile on July 6 on Larpenteur Avenue in Falcon Heights. The officer has said that Castile, a black man, resembled the description of a robbery suspect and pulled him over. Yanez, who is Hispanic, was charged with felony manslaughter in November.
At Falcon Heights City Council meetings and listening sessions there, many members of the public filled out comment cards, detailing what they wanted, why and when. Some expressed anger; others support of elected officials, the police department and Yanez himself.
“I want to know that steps will be taken to prevent similar tragedies in the future,” one person wrote.
Another person wrote that they were concerned about “the disproportionate stopping and ticketing of people in our community. I’ve had to meet my friends of color in other areas of the metro because of the threat they face in coming to this community.”
Another, who said they have lived in Falcon Heights for 41 years, wrote that “The very unfortunate police shooting in July was the first controversial incident I can recall in my 58 years of driving this corridor. ... We should for sure not form a conclusion until the investigation is completed and then understand that a single incident does not automatically call for wholesale changes to an otherwise successful system.”
St. Anthony’s voluntary request for intervention makes the St. Anthony Police Department the 16th — and the smallest — in the nation to be studied by the COPS Office. The city has a sworn force of 23 officers and contracts with the cities of Falcon Heights and Lauderdale to provide police services.
The DOJ studies take two years or longer and look at such things as traffic stops, recruitment, police use of force and the department’s internal system for addressing complaints. The audit will not investigate individual incidents or officers.
COPS Office Director Ronald Davis last month provided a general outline of how the St. Anthony review will proceed: Federal authorities will spend the next eight to 10 months working with experts to analyze the department. It will include a review of department policies, thousands of pages of documents, ride-alongs, listening sessions with the public and conversations with police officers.
The office will issue a report, which will also be available to the public. Federal authorities will then spend the next 18 months working with the city to implement recommended changes. Two progress reports will be issued.
The public can contact or send comments to SaintAnthonyPD.CRITA@usdoj.gov.
Staff writer Paul Walsh contributed to this report.