Editor’s note: This article was signed by several members of the group Falcon Heights We Can Do Better. Their names are below.
Falcon Heights is a small town and when police officer Jeronimo Yanez shot and killed Philando Castile last year during a traffic stop on our street, it sent a jolt through many of us. We wanted to know how this could happen in our suburb that averages less than a crime a day.
We were jolted again last week when a jury acquitted Yanez on all counts, and we felt some of the pain of Philando’s mother. It reminded us of all that we have learned this past year. If justice cannot come through the court system for Philando’s family and closest friends, then we must make sure a measure of justice comes from the actions of Falcon Heights officials.
In the weeks after Philando was killed by Yanez, we learned how complacent we had been. Many Falcon Heights residents testified at City Council meetings that for years they had noticed that it was nearly always people of color pulled over on Larpenteur and Snelling avenues. But we said nothing. As Philando’s good friend John Thompson told the packed room at a September City Council work session, we all had Castile’s blood on our hands. It was a cutting accusation, but it was not wrong.
The most important thing we learned, through public testimony from residents and from people who travel Larpenteur and Snelling, is that people of color were disproportionately stopped by St. Anthony police officers. The Police Department’s own numbers verified that testimony. We were ashamed to hear what was done in our name. We were ashamed to hear that some residents stopped inviting black people to their homes because they could not guarantee that they would not be harassed by police.
Several Falcon Heights City Council members said that no one had complained to the city about the police, and we wanted to believe that. Finally, in recent weeks, a council member publicly made an admission that proved that city officials were aware of the policy of stopping black people and did nothing. The council member stated that the longtime St. Anthony police chief felt it was his job to put an enforcement perimeter around Falcon Heights to keep crime from “leaking in” from the big cities.
The Falcon Heights City Council deserves credit for holding a public listening session that filled the council chambers three weeks after the shooting. However, it refused the requests of residents and city visitors to end the city’s contract with the St. Anthony Police Department, and it ignored a petition with 446 signatures to end the contract. It did approve our request to establish a citizen’s task force to improve inclusion and policing.
Our advice to citizens wanting to bring about any policing change in your cities is to measure your effort with a calendar, not a clock. You will have to show up at every meeting so they know your name and face and realize you are serious. You will have to gather information, write letters and e-mails to the council members, and go door-to-door with petitions.
But it can work.
Our efforts, the efforts of our African-American allies and those of other organizations galvanized by the shootings of civilians by police officers around Minnesota have resulted in changes.
Most important is a bipartisan bill passed in the Legislature this year providing $6.5 million to the Minnesota Board of Peace Officer Standards and Training to increase the amount and types of training for de-escalating situations officers face.
Our citizen task force’s recommendations ranged from community engagement between officers and citizens to a community-police commission as a method for citizens to provide positive and negative feedback to the Police Department. It recommended better training on de-escalation, dealing with people with mental health problems and concentrating traffic stops on driving violations that can harm people, not broken taillights.
It takes an engaged citizenry to make sure the police are operating in the manner we desire. We must remember our pain and shame caused by the fact that a very good man was killed in our name. We must continue the pressure to make sure our city officials incorporate the excellent task force recommendations into our contract with a new police department.
Because blood cannot be easily removed once it is on your hands.
The members of the group Falcon Heights We Can Do Better who signed this article are: Christine Baeumler, Tom Baldwin, Sarah Chambers, Christine Chitambar, Peter Demerath, Anna Gambucci, Melissa Harl Sellew, Chuck Laszewski, Joyce Lyons, Georgiana May, Bruce Mielke, Paula Mielke, Rebecca Montgomery, Melissa Stone, Kate Thompson.