At Castile stop, uneasy questions of race and police training

Scene of the shooting
Investigators mark the vehicle that Philando Castile was driving when he was shot and killed by a St. Anthony police officer in Falcon Heights on July 6.
Christopher Juhn for MPR News

Video of Philando Castile soaked in blood after being shot by a St. Anthony police officer was seen by millions around the world. But how did a suburban traffic stop turn so tragic?

Philando Castile
Philando Castile in an undated photo.
Courtesy of Sam Castile

Police scanner audio prior to the stop sheds some light on the question. It suggests race played a role in the stop — the police chatter indicated one officer believed Castile, a black man, resembled a suspect from a recent nearby armed robbery because of his "wide-set nose."

Beyond that, critics say if the cops really believed Castile was an armed robbery suspect, they did not follow proper police procedure.

It's still not known what exactly happened before shots were fired and Castile's girlfriend, a passenger in the car, began live streaming the aftermath.

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But in the scanner audio minutes earlier, an unnamed officer can be heard saying, "I'm going to stop a car .... 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 because of the wide-set nose."

Castile's family says the stop was the culmination of an ongoing pattern of racial profiling.

Castile had been pulled over nearly 50 times since 2002. Police from different parts of the Twin Cities cited him for a wide range of small offenses: learner's permit violation, no proof of insurance, no seat belt, driving after his license was revoked. He was never charged with a felony.

Protesters gather across the street from shooting.
Protesters gather across the street from where Philando Castile was shot and killed in Falcon Heights last week.
Christopher Juhn for MPR News

Accusations of racial profiling in Minnesota and across the country are nothing new. Minnesota lawmakers decided to take a closer look at the issue during the war on drugs in the mid-1990s. Legislators commissioned the Council on Crime and Justice and the Institute on Race and Poverty to gather and analyze traffic stop data.

The 2003 report — the most recent, comprehensive, statewide review — showed blacks and Latinos were stopped at a far higher rate than whites and searched at a far higher rate. Yet, they were found in possession of drugs at a far lower rate.

At the time of the report, state public safety officials said they weren't convinced the data proved conclusively that law enforcement agents were targeting African-Americans and other minorities. Thirteen years later, though, it's a different story, said Gavin Kearney, an attorney who co-authored the report.

"I think if a study like this were to come today there would be more folks poised to ensure that it led to concrete reforms," he said. "The other thing that's different now is that there is a broader understanding, a broader acceptance across the political spectrum, of how damaging the war on drugs has been, how damaging this aggressive enforcement of the law has been."

Experts say stops where police pull over a suspect for a small violation are common. Castile's girlfriend Diamond Reynolds said in her Facebook live video moments after the shooting that they were pulled over for a broken taillight.

The attorney for Jeronimo Yanez, the St. Anthony police officer who shot and killed Castile, said race had nothing to do with the fatal encounter. Thomas Kelly told the Associated Press Yanez thought he was approaching someone who resembled a suspect in an armed robbery.

If Castile was in fact a robbery suspect, however, experts say officer Yanez, a four-year-veteran of the St. Anthony Police Department, didn't handle the situation properly.

A group walked to the shooting scene.
A group left the rally in front of the Governor's Residence in St. Paul and walked to the scene of the shooting in Falcon Heights on July 7.
Courtney Perry for MPR News

"That was not the way to conduct a felony stop," said Michael Quinn, a retired Minneapolis police sergeant and chair of the Law Enforcement Advisory Board at Inver Hills Community College.

"A felony stop," Quinn said, "would've put the officers behind the car, commands from the speaker in their car typically, or yelling if they had to and have the person get out of the car, with their hands visible, walk back at least a safe distance to get away from the car and then take custody of that person."

It's possible Yanez wasn't sure if Castile was really the robbery suspect he had in mind and wanted to take a closer look at him, Quinn added.

State statistics from the 2003 report showed police in the mostly white suburbs stopped black drivers far more than expected. That rings true for African-Americans like Andrew Tess.

Tess, a 30-year-old African-American, said he was pulled over in and around Eden Prairie at least 11 times in a six-year span without a single ticket.

"It would be various small things, a few times it was a headlight, and I had two working headlights," Tess said. "One of the times there was something in the front seat and they said they thought it was a child seat in my front seat."

Officers gather at the scene of the shooting.
Police officers gather at the scene of the shooting on Larpenteur Avenue in Falcon Heights overnight after Castile was shot and killed.
Christopher Juhn for MPR News

The Castile shooting hit too close to home for a black man driving in the suburbs, he added. "Just feeling the injustices of constantly having your status in life questioned and your security compromised by inept or overzealous police."

Data from the St. Anthony police show while just 7 percent of residents are black, nearly half of the arrests in 2016 were of black individuals. The numbers include the towns of Falcon Heights and Lauderdale, which are served by the St. Anthony department. Officials with the city of St. Anthony did not return requests for comment.

Questions about St. Anthony's traffic stop procedures aren't exclusive to people of color.

A St. Anthony police officer pulled over Joe Olson, a white Roseville resident and law professor, for running a stoplight on Larpenteur Avenue about four years ago. Olson stopped, rolled down his windows and put his hands on the wheel. "I heard a voice, looked in the outside driver's mirror and there is the officer standing about 3 feet behind the vehicle."

Olson thought it was odd. The two communicated through the side mirror the whole time. "His voice had a tremor in it like when people are fearful. And I thought to myself, 'Oh gosh, he sounds uncomfortable.'"

Eventually, the officer gave him a ticket for running a red light. Olson said he was more concerned about the cop's tactics. He said he went to talk to the police chief at the time only to have his concerns dismissed.

"I'm saying you have a training problem," Olson recalled telling the chief, "and he's saying this officer is wonderful."