Minnesota Now with Cathy Wurzer

St. Paul Councilmember plans community meeting in response to shooting of Yia Xiong

Protesters hold signs. One reads "Justice 4 Yia Xiong."
Demonstrators chant "I am deaf don't shoot" walking in front of the St. Paul Police Department's Western District headquarters during a protest on Sunday. Organizers say they want their voices to be heard inside the department.
Simone Cazares | MPR News

The killing of a Hmong man by police in St. Paul has fueled calls to fire the officers involved and institute police reforms. Body camera footage released Friday revealed details of what happened before police shot 65-year old Yia Xiong after responding to reports of a man threatening people with a knife.

At a protest over the weekend, Xiong’s family said he had hearing loss and did not speak English, raising concerns about how police interact with people across language barriers and disability.

Councilmember Nelsie Yang represents Ward 6 in St. Paul and is the first Hmong American woman to serve on the council. She joined MPR News Host Cathy Wurzer to talk about the impact of Xiong’s killing on the Hmong community and her next steps in calling for accountability.

Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation. 

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Audio transcript

CATHY WURZER: The killing of a Hmong man by police in St. Paul has fueled calls to fire the officers involved in for policing reform. Officers responded earlier this month to reports of a man threatening people with a knife in an apartment building. As body camera footage released Friday shows, they shot 65-year-old Yia Xiong with a taser and a gun.

At a protest over the weekend, his family said he had hearing loss and did not speak English, which raises questions about how police interact with people across language barriers and disability. St. Paul City Councilmember Nelsie Yang is with us right now to talk about the impact of this incident on the community.

Councilmember Yang, thank you for joining us.

NELSIE YANG: Thank you for having me here.

CATHY WURZER: How is this affecting members of the Hmong community in St. Paul? What are you hearing?

NELSIE YANG: Well, first, I want to do a quick introduction of myself. Again, I'm a councilmember over in the East Side of St. Paul I'm the first Hmong-American woman and the youngest person to be elected to the St. Paul City Council. It breaks my heart to even have to be here.

And the Hmong community is livid. We are hurting. And we are ready for police reform. We always have been. And not only just us, but the 300-plus people who showed up at the rally yesterday and a candlelight vigil for justice for Yia Xiong. We have seen this happen to so many people across race, across gender, and especially to people who are living in poverty and working-class people.

And we are so sick and tired of being sick and tired. And let me make it clear that Yia was a son. He was a brother, a father, and a secret war veteran, and refugee. He lived in a building for low-income people who are seniors or have a disability. And what the officers did to him was so unjust.

CATHY WURZER: And for people who don't understand "secret war," we're talking about the Vietnam War.

NELSIE YANG: Yes.

CATHY WURZER: I'm wondering, what changes should the city put in place to prevent this from happening again?

NELSIE YANG: Well, if you get a chance to watch the footage, or maybe have even heard what had been happening, I want to explain that. It was disgraceful that our officers provoked a man, an elder, who had already entered his own apartment as soon as he saw them. Our officers stopped him from closing the door to his safe space, and made no attempt to de-escalate the situation in a calm manner, figure out what the root cause of the issue was, nor even assess if this Hmong elder had language barriers.

And what is so upsetting is that we as a community have made it loud and clear how important it is for us to have a police force that is representative of our communities. Many of the police officers on the scene were people of color. We had officers who spoke Hmong. And no one made an attempt to speak Hmong to Yia.

And the type of change that we need is that we need officers to have culturally competent training. We need them to understand what mental health is, and to actually be able to support and care for somebody who is in a crisis moment, to have informed crisis negotiation, non-violent strategies, and to even attempt to do de-escalation. Which we clearly saw did not happen at all in this situation and led to Yia Xiong's death.

CATHY WURZER: Have you had a chance to talk to Chief Axel Henry, St. Paul police chief, about this at all?

NELSIE YANG: I have talked to him already. And we also even saw that there was a statement made by the Police Union president, Mark Ross, who said that the officers acted heroically. And I made a public statement saying that I completely disagree with that. It was not heroic. And again, the actions of the officers were disgraceful.

And we will be working toward having a community meeting in St. Paul to really gather community members to talk about what police reform looks like to them, come up with community recommendations that we will be delivering to the mayor and the chief, and ensuring that they are held accountable to implementing these changes. And I really look forward to having folks there at that community meeting once we figure out the details on when it will happen. And it will be this week.

CATHY WURZER: The officers are on administrative leave, as is customary with something like this. Do you think they should be fired?

NELSIE YANG: If you look at the interviews from yesterday, the answer is yes, they should be. And also there should be accountability on all of the officers who were at the scene.

CATHY WURZER: All right. Next steps would be, as you say, a community meeting on this. Can the Council do anything at this point at all?

NELSIE YANG: What the Council can do right now is to actually speak up. And I'm so, so grateful for the community members who have been planning this and at the rallies, that Councilmember Russel Balenger, Councilmember Mitra Jalali have been at the front lines with us. I want to give them a huge shout out.

I also want to give a huge shout-out to our amazing Hmong community leader Snowdon Herr, who was the first-- first person who went to the St. Paul Police Central District to protest as soon as we heard about what happened.

CATHY WURZER: Well, Councilmember Yang, I appreciate your time. Thank you so much.

NELSIE YANG: Thank you for having me here.

CATHY WURZER: We've been talking to St. Paul City Councilmember Nelsie Yang. She's been talking about the police killing of 65-year-old Yia Xiong in St. Paul.

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