A Police Shooting at the Crossroads of Minnesota

Investigators from Minnesota's Bureau of Criminal Apprehension at the scene of the shooting of Philando Castile on Wednesday night, by Tony Webster (CC-BY-SA)

Investigators from Minnesota’s Bureau of Criminal Apprehension at the scene of the shooting of Philando Castile on Wednesday night, by Tony Webster (CC-BY-SA)

My Thursday morning had a strange start when I checked my Twitter feed and saw news that an African-American man, Philando Castile, had been shot and killed shortly before I’d gone to bed, and it had happened in a place I knew pretty well. Disturbing live video taken by his girlfriend in the moments immediately after his shooting by a St. Anthony police officer had gone viral, drawing attention from across the country and around the world. It was jarring to see the name of the small suburb of Falcon Heights posted hashtag form by the celebrities and national news reporters that I follow. It’s a place that’s not well-known outside of Minnesota, but it was right at a location close to the heart of many people who live here, and shines a stark light on the fact that we still have some major divides.

Castile had been pulled over on Larpenteur Avenue in Falcon Heights when he was shot by Officer Jeronimo Yanez. Follow the street west, and it becomes Hennepin Avenue, one of the most significant thoroughfares in Minneapolis. And yet, the site of Castile’s shooting was only a stone’s throw from farm fields—land used by agricultural programs at the University of Minnesota’s “Saint Paul” campus. But, as if that juxtaposition isn’t evocative enough, he was also stopped right by Larpenteur’s intersection with Underwood Street, the northernmost entrance to the grounds of the Minnesota State Fair.

Falcon Heights, Home of the State Fair

I used to live within two miles of the site where Castile was shot, so I’m familiar with the location, and I’m far from alone. The fair draws 1.8 million people over its annual 12-day run—equivalent to one-third of the state’s population—so there are a lot of people who also know the area. The fair is a place of pilgrimage for Minnesotans, though certainly more of a destination to gain a few pounds rather than gain spiritual enlightenment. Travel south from Larpenteur along Underwood Street into the site of “The Great Minnesota Get-Together” and you’ll pass major fair landmarks including Machinery Hill, Ye Old Mill, the Food Building, and—just before reaching the street’s end at Como Avenue—the Dairy Building and the Haunted Mansion. Yes, the last time you were munching on deep-fried cheese curds, you were likely just a 10-minute walk away from the site of Wednesday night’s shooting.

The Black Lives Matter movement was heavily criticized last year for staging a protest at the state fair, a move that now appears prescient given how police violence against the black community has landed right at its doorstep for all the world to see. It’s likely that the shooting of Castile, known as “Mr. Phil” among students at J.J. Hill Montessori School where he worked as a kitchen supervisor, will have a short half-life in the national news spotlight, but its location should cause its impact to continue to resonate here. It happened at a place where everyone should be welcome, and not one where race or cultural background should cause people to be treated any differently.

Phil Castile was pulled over by officers of the St. Anthony Police Department, a force that is shared by the communities of St. Anthony (pop. 9,000), Falcon Heights (pop. 5,600), and Lauderdale (pop. 2,500). It’s a somewhat strange jurisdiction, since it isn’t a contiguous area. Lauderdale and Falcon Heights are both located along Larpenteur Avenue and are adjacent to each other, but St. Anthony doesn’t touch either of them. Police from St. Anthony, to the northwest of the other two cities, need to travel through Minneapolis or the neighboring suburb of Roseville to get to Lauderdale and Falcon Heights, though it’s a fairly short distance.

A map of the jurisdiction of the St. Anthony Police Department in St. Anthony, Lauderdale, and Falcon Heights, Minnesota.

A map of the jurisdiction of the St. Anthony Police Department in St. Anthony, Lauderdale, and Falcon Heights, Minnesota.

According to what Diamond Reynolds said in her video, they’d been pulled over due to a broken taillight on their car. If that’s what the officer said, it may have been a ruse to interrogate Mr. Castile for other reasons. Witnesses have shown images of the car with its lights on, and police scanner audio also tells a different but no less damning story:

“I’m going to stop a car. […] I’m gonna check IDs. I have reason to pull it over. The two occupants just look like people that were involved in a robbery. The driver looks more like one of our suspects, just ’cause of the wide set nose.”

That’s a statement that smacks of racism, since it’s casting an extremely wide net based on a characteristic common among black people—like stopping and questioning anyone who’s wearing blue jeans, though in this case it’s a body feature and something that couldn’t be changed on a whim. Perhaps there were other things the officer saw that he didn’t mention over the radio, but this incident strongly resembles a case of “driving while black” that ended with a deadly turn.

Are there officers of the St. Anthony Police Department who camp out on Larpenteur Avenue looking for people with wide noses? That’s just one of many questions that need answering.

A 2003 study of police in several Minnesota suburbs found that black drivers were more than three times as likely to to be stopped by police as compared to the average, so the St. Anthony police’s behavior probably isn’t unique in our region. Castile had been stopped many times before and had racked up quite a list of citations, but it’s difficult to know whether his actions were significantly worse than average. If a population is being unfairly targeted to begin with, it’s possible to get caught in a feedback loop, racking up fines and citations at an increasing rate, with it becoming harder and harder to pay down the fines and handle the necessary time in court.

In a twist that makes this case different from most other shootings by police, Castile was traveling with a gun, one that was legal with the carry permit he held. According to his girlfriend, he informed the officer about the gun at the start of the stop, but when he was trying to comply with the officer’s request for him to pull out his ID, the officer interpreted Castile’s motions as a grab for the gun and shot him four times.

The video by Diamond Reynolds, Castile’s girlfriend, didn’t show the shooting or the events leading up to it, but instead began seconds later as an officer continued to point a gun through the window at her boyfriend. Everything from that point on is also unpleasant to watch or read through, as it reveals a failure to render immediate first aid to Castile, the handcuffing of Reynolds (also at gunpoint), and the fact that her four-year-old daughter had been in the back seat through the whole incident. The video ends with Reynolds (still in handcuffs) in the back seat of a squad car with her daughter as they waited for whatever would come next.

(Here is a copy of the video. Note that the image is flipped, and Castile is in the driver’s seat. If you prefer, transcripts are also available.)

There had been a similar incident the day before in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where Alton Sterling was shot and killed while being arrested for selling CDs. Sterling had also been carrying a gun, in a state where open-carry is generally legal. Sterling had a long rap sheet and may not have qualified under those laws, but, like Castile’s driving offenses, selling music on the street is not a crime that should be punished by death.

Open-carry regulations in Texas also appear to have contributed to confusion on Thursday night as police sought out who shot a dozen police, killing 5, and two members of the public during protests related to the deaths of Castile and Sterling. Multiple people had been seen carrying guns at the protest. Police ultimately used a robot to set off a bomb that killed the suspect, Micah Johnson, perhaps the first time that has ever happened in American policing. (Bombs have been used on rare occasions before, such as against the MOVE compound in Philadelphia in 1985, but the robot delivery system is new. They are most commonly used by police bomb squads to destroy suspected explosive devices in a controlled manner.)

Policing and Public Safety

In all of these incidents, we’ve seen collisions between current policies for public safety and personal protection, and it didn’t end well in any of them, so there are a lot of things that need re-examining.

First and foremost, police and the judicial system must treat people equally regardless of the color of their skin or their cultural background, and afford everyone the same rights. The public also has a big role to play, since it’s common for residents to express more concern and call police more often when they see black people around than when they see whites, and that’s not acceptable either. Many of us need to recalibrate our sense of what is normal behavior by others, and that mostly just means spending more time around people with different backgrounds than our own. Take the bus more often or find a place to visit in a neighborhood you usually don’t go. It might feel strange at first, but it’s likely any discomfort will fade over time.

Police officers may also need to be redistributed across the regions that their departments serve. The St. Anthony Police Department’s 2015 Annual Report notes that they issued 6,765 citations last year: 2,410 in St. Anthony, 2,055 in Lauderdale, and 2,300 in Falcon Heights. The report doesn’t include detailed breakdowns for Lauderdale or Falcon Heights, but 92% of the citations in St. Anthony were for moving violations. There’s something suspicious about those numbers, especially since Lauderdale is such a tiny place (a smaller population and only 0.4 square miles in area, in comparison to 2.2 square miles for Falcon Heights and 2.4 square miles for St. Anthony).

It’s possible that these cities may be depending too heavily on revenue from fines from police citations. These small places right next to major core cities are among the strongest candidates in our region for annexation by Minneapolis and Saint Paul, something that should be strongly considered if they have been shoring up budgets with ticket revenue.

Even when officers are being even-handed, it’s possible for them to enhance existing disparities. Over in the Minneapolis police force, the most prolific ticket-writing officer had issued 2,223 citations over a 21-month period, while the average for an officer in the department was a mere 147 over that same amount of time. He was generally praised for being equally strict in his policing no matter who he confronted, but his work was focused in the economically disadvantaged and predominantly African-American north side of Minneapolis. (By the time of the 2015 MPR profile, he’d been reassigned to a unit focused on problem rental properties.)

Since African-Americans (and, to a lesser extent, other minorities) have been subject to higher scrutiny by police, there must be a systematic review of the records of people who have gotten caught up in feedback loops of the judicial system. It would make sense to wipe out certain charges and perhaps even pay people back for fines and time spent in court that were only racked up because of being unfairly targeted in the first place.

Police departments should audit the reports filed by their officers to ensure accuracy. A recent Frontline documentary showed how some officers lie or distort their statements about what happens during patrols. It’s difficult to be 100% accurate and impossible to include every detail in reports, but follow-up interviews and regular reviews of dashboard and body camera footage would help identify officers who are mistreating the people they interact with or who are regularly falsifying or omitting critical information. Of course, departments also need to follow through on those audits and appropriately punish or retrain officers who violate the rules, something that has often failed to happen in the past.

The Burden of Traffic Enforcement

Philando Castile was often cited for lack of insurance in previous instances when he’d been pulled over by police, though it’s unclear to me whether that meant he didn’t have any insurance at all or just didn’t have up-to-date proof. (I’ve been pulled over once by the police and got dinged for having an out-of-date insurance card, even though my policy was paid in full and the account number was correct. I would have gotten away with a warning for my main offense of illegally turning right on red if not for that.)

It’s expensive to own and operate a car, and sometimes they’re unaffordable. Perhaps Castile had been unable to pay the cost of maintenance and insurance on his car, though that may not have entirely been his fault either. A recent report found that one Minneapolis resident was being charged a 300% higher rate that what was typical for someone of higher socioeconomic status with a similar driving record. If you were being gouged at that level, would you pay the insurance or take the risk of driving without? Insurance cost disparities are likely something that requires investigation by the Minnesota Attorney General.

The costs of driving also underscore why it’s critical to have a balanced transportation network, combined with development policies that limit sprawl, so it’s possible to get around in a reasonable amount of time without needing a car. MnDOT funneled $3.3 billion for the state trunk highway network, state aid for qualifying county roads and city streets, and related administrative activities in 2015. In comparison, only a tiny amount was spent on actual infrastructure for public transportation that year. (Most of the money Metro Transit and other agencies receive is spent on operations rather than infrastructure. Nearly all of the operational cost of roadways is borne by drivers rather than MnDOT.) Spreading housing, employment, and retail across a car-dependent landscape with little or no means for economically disadvantaged populations to get around sets the stage for entrapment and persecution.

The Gun Issue

Finally, there’s the issue of the guns involved. Personally, I find guns to be completely inappropriate for personal protection and believe that the Second Amendment was really intended to allow the arming of state-level militias (today organized as the National Guard) rather than individuals, but Philando Castile was exercising his rights as they are currently interpreted when he was carrying his legally permitted weapon.

As if Castile’s shooting on Wednesday and the chaos in Dallas on Thursday night wasn’t enough, we were again shocked on Friday when two toddlers were shot by stray bullets in North Minneapolis. A two-year-old died and a 15-month-old was injured in the drive-by shooting.

Police are trained to shoot at a person's center of mass, a target that could easily be deadly. Attempts to shoot at extremities are often ineffective. Source: NYPD 2013 firearms discharge report.

Police are trained to shoot at a person’s center of mass, a target that could easily be deadly. Attempts to shoot at extremities are often ineffective. Source: NYPD 2013 firearms discharge report.

Guns are often inaccurate in real-world situations and have no ability to deliver a response proportional to a threat. The idea of intentionally shooting someone to disable or disarm them rather than to kill is largely a myth, and evidence backing their use for personal defense is practically nonexistent. There were zero reported cases of guns being used for self-defense by carry permit holders in Minnesota in 2013.

The fact I find most damning about guns is that ownership rates are strongly correlated with the suicide rate across the U.S.—and that’s the overall suicide rate (it is less commonly attempted and succeeds less frequently in places where firearms are less common). Across the country, two-thirds of firearm deaths are suicides and only about one-third are homicides. The difference is even starker in Minnesota, where 4 out of every 5 gun deaths in 2013 (339 out of 419) were firearm-related suicides, according to CDC data. That’s a public health disaster.

For these reasons, I think it should be far more difficult to get guns, and we should go back to disallowing carry permits from being issued for personal protection, something that’s common in other countries and a policy that had been in place in some Minnesota jurisdictions until changes to state law in the 1990s.

If we continue to allow carry permits to the same extent here, there should at least be a statewide database or portal to ensure that they can be validated as quickly as possible. Minnesota’s current system is set up so permits are issued and recorded independently by sheriffs in the state’s 87 different counties. Notably, the St. Anthony PD operates in both Hennepin County (where the bulk of St. Anthony is located) and Ramsey County (where Lauderdale and Falcon Heights are located). Castile’s permit was issued by the Hennepin County Sheriff.

Police should also be carrying guns less frequently than they do today. If cops spend the majority of their time patrolling for moving violations and responding to calls for medical assistance, is there even a need to be wearing a holster all day long? I’d be okay with police having weapons available in the trunks of their squad cars or in other on-board lockers in case a situation turns hot, but they normally just aren’t necessary.

There’s an overabundance of police training time spent on firearms and self-defense in comparison to time for mediation and community policing strategies, despite the fact that the latter are exactly what are needed on a day-to-day basis. In New York City, only one out of every 850 officers intentionally fired their weapon at suspects while on duty through the course of 2013. That’s only a 1 in 300,000 chance that a firearm will be used on any given day by an individual officer, and evidence that cops are spending far too much time learning how to shoot at a threat that will likely never come, and far too little time training for the 99.9997% of days when their weapon will not be discharged at another human being.

We all deserve to have safe and fruitful lives, to be able to travel where we need when we need to, and to get through our days without being needlessly harassed. These are rights that are not being equally afforded to all Minnesotans today, and that’s a situation that must be remedied.

About Mike Hicks

Mike Hicks is a computer geek at heart, but has always had interests in transportation and urban planning. A longtime contributor to Wikipedia, he started a blog about trains and other transportation after realizing it had been two decades since he'd first heard about a potential high-speed rail line from Chicago to Minneapolis. Read more at http://hizeph400.blogspot.com/