After Philando, a community asks, is this the best we can do?
ST. PAUL — Clarence Castile says he's not giving up hope.
He's disappointed that Officer Jeronimo Yanez was acquitted of charges in the killing of his nephew Philando Castile. He says the system is flawed when Yanez can walk away from what he sees as a terrible mistake without so much as a legal slap on the wrist.
But Castile is not walking away from the system. Like many people in the community, Castile vowed that he and his family will remain engaged and try to keep other families — and other police officers' families — from going through what theirs have.
"Considering the way the trial went and the decision that was made, it leaves a lot of people in a hopeless state of mind," Castile said. "Where do we go now? For me and my family, we're going to keep doing the things we've been doing from day one: positive things to bring good information to people to help the community grow and get better at what we're doing."
But are we getting better at what we're doing?
Castile has had a voice in much of the discussion since his nephew, a popular school cafeteria supervisor, was shot to death in July during a traffic stop.
He serves on the Governor's Council on Law Enforcement and Community Relations, set up in the aftermath of his nephew's death last summer and Jamar Clark's the year before in Minneapolis, and he intends to stick with the task force until it makes its final recommendations.
The group already has had some impact. It discussed and approved a police training bill that marks the biggest effort at the Legislature this year to bridge the gap between police and minority communities. The law earmarks an extra $6.5 million a year — up from $2.9 million annually — through 2021 to pay for police training. The training is specific to the areas of "crisis intervention and mental illness crises; conflict management and mediation; and recognizing and valuing community diversity and cultural differences to include implicit bias training."
Castile has his own recommendation for implementing that police training:
"They could name the training after Philando Castile," he said. "Then when Philando comes to mind they'd say 'Wow, I don't want to make another Philando. I don't want to go through what Yanez went through.' That could definitely make an impact."
Sean Gormley, executive director of Law Enforcement Labor Services, the state's largest police labor union, said he's also encouraged by the Legislature's commitment to police training. He said the state training budget has been cut dramatically since the 1980s and '90s.
"It is valuable," Gormley said. "The worst case scenario for a cop is to get involved in a critical incident. If we can find ways to avoid those incidents — we're all looking for that solution."
Politics, changed and the same
Conversations about police and community relations have been going on for decades, but after Clark was killed by Minneapolis police in November 2015 and Castile was killed by Yanez in July 2016, Minnesota's politicians — particularly Democrats — vowed changes. The generally staid, self-satisfied Minnesota mindset would end, they claimed.
In some ways, it already has. Democratic gubernatorial candidates for 2018 feel compelled to react to racial disparities. There's a new "People of Color" caucus at the Legislature. And protests, policing and racial priorities have become a key part of the political dialogue. On a local level, this year's city races have been infused with calls for changes on race relations.
But with the Yanez verdict, politicians say more changes are needed.
"If we are to reduce the horrible killings of innocent people by police, we must change our laws." said Rochester Rep. Tina Liebling, an attorney who is running for governor.
She suggests the law that allowed Yanez to escape penalties because he feared for his safety may be flawed and that police must do better at avoiding violent confrontation.
St. Paul Rep. Erin Murphy, another Democrat running for governor, suggested the state must re-examine laws and law enforcement policies that "conflate minor infractions with major crimes."
Many Democrats were more vague in their calls to action — they simply called for justice. Republican gubernatorial candidates and legislators, who have tended to defend police and work toward increased penalties for protesters, have been silent in official statements in the last week. The Pioneer Press reached out to several Republican candidates Saturday and heard back from Blake Huffman, a Ramsey County commissioner, who called from his car.
"What do we do going forward? We have spent a lot of time and energy working with the (Ramsey County) sheriff's department to make sure our deputies, number one, look like the communities they represent and, number two, know how to respond appropriately to different situations — whether to escalate, de-escalate, etc.," Huffman said. "I will leave it to other (law enforcement agencies) as to whether they're doing it appropriately."
It appears that Ramsey County will be taking over policing in Falcon Heights, the St. Paul suburb where Yanez shot Castile. Yanez worked for the St. Anthony Police Department, which provides services under contract to Falcon Heights. Last week the Falcon Heights City Council voted to begin negotiations on a policing contract with the Ramsey County sheriff's office.
That's a step in the right direction, said Paula Mielke, a member of Falcon Heights Can Do Better. A city task force has presented recommendations on ways to make its policing more community-oriented, and Mielke believes the sheriff's office will be better equipped to follow them.
"I think there will be a lot of watching that these recommendations that came out of the task force will be followed as best as they can," Mielke said.
One thing she wants to see is a change in the traffic enforcement policies in Falcon Heights. Castile was initially pulled over because of a broken taillight, although Yanez also said Castile resembled a suspect in a recent armed robbery. Castile had been stopped and ticketed dozens of times in recent years, and in the wake of his death black motorists have shared stories of being stopped, searched and ticketed more often than their white friends. Data from local police departments back up their observations.
"Stop this excessive ticketing," Mielke said. "They should focus on ticketing for things that put lives at risk. Things like DUI, running red lights and speeding. Focus on those."
Racial disparities endure
Leaders of communities of color have spent the past three years pushing state lawmakers to address the racial gaps in income, education and opportunities that many see as at the heart of why people of color are treated differently than their white neighbors.
Last year, after a U.S. Census report showed black families have median incomes about half those of white families', the state Legislature approved $35 million in new spending to address racial disparities.
Many community leaders were encouraged by the new money but said much more needed to be done to address the historic inequities in Minnesota.
They've called for increased efforts to create jobs in minority communities, more diversity in hiring for state and local government jobs, improved access to affordable childcare, reforms to close the academic achievement gap and more resources to help students of color earn college degrees.
Some of those issues were addressed in bills approved by state lawmakers during the legislative session that wrapped up in May, but far from the extent many activists had hoped considering the state had budget surplus of $1.4 billion.
Community leaders also spent much of the session opposing legislative proposals people of color found detrimental to their push for equality. Those included bills to prohibit cities from raising the minimum wage and requiring sick time for workers and increased penalties for protesters. Neither of those measures became law.