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St. Anthony officials to examine police bias

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Police at the shooting scene.
Police secure evidence at the shooting scene on Larpenteur Avenue in Falcon Heights, where Philando Castile was shot by a St. Anthony police officer.
Christopher Juhn for MPR News file

A Twin Cities suburb that's been in the spotlight ever since an African-American man was shot to death by one of its police officers took a small but significant step toward reform Tuesday night. 

St. Anthony village leaders signaled their agreement, at least in principle, to join forces with residents and communities of color to investigate racial bias within the city's Police Department.

"We hear you," Mayor Jerry Faust told a handful of activists and residents seeking a task force to look into issues of race and policing. 

Among them was John Thompson, a friend of Philando Castile, who was fatally shot July 6 by a St. Anthony police officer on patrol in nearby Falcon Heights.

"I don't know what Philando was thinking driving down that stretch of Larpenteur because it's well-known in the black community not to travel down that stretch of Larpenteur," Thompson told the council.

Thompson, in his Philando baseball cap, has become a familiar face to the St. Anthony City Council, dutifully attending council meetings pressing for change. He told them he sees a particular problem with racial bias in smaller communities like St. Anthony.  

"It is serious. We need to not be yelling at you. We need to be in the room caucusing with each other trying to figure out a solution to this problem," he said.

John Thompson
John Thompson, a friend of Philando Castile, tells the St. Anthony City Council that city officials and community members need to work together to address racial bias in the city's Police Department.
Laura Yuen | MPR News

Activists and residents are pushing for a task force — with teeth. It would comprise city officials, residents, activists and others to identify institutional bias even in the day-to-day routines of officers. 

  Kristine Lizdas, a white St. Anthony resident who's helping lead the effort, said the bias could stem from seemingly benign police department rules and regulations. But one thing's for sure, she said: This effort would need the buy-in of the police chief, John Mangseth.

  "If an endeavor like this is going to work, and be successful and be meaningful, and have teeth, and truly change policing practices here in St. Anthony and provide a model for other communities that are struggling with this, the chief has to provide real leadership on this," she said. "I think he has to jump into this 110 percent."

  The chief wasn't present at the meeting.

The mostly respectful give-and-take was a far cry from last week's City Council workshop in Falcon Heights, where protesters shut down the event because they felt like they weren't being heard.  

At one point, Faust told the audience that no matter what prosecutors decide in whether to charge the St. Anthony officer who shot Castile, the city of St. Anthony would not drop the issue of exploring racial bias in policing. He said he didn't agree with all of the sentiments put forth by supporters of the task force, but he wanted to build something that would stand the test of time.  

The mayor also acknowledged some cultural blind spots and unfamiliar terrain for this small-town government.

  "This is something we're not used to doing. We can build roads, we can build water plants. We can do all kinds of grand things," he said. "But maybe we're not that good at some of the social issues."  

With Tuesday's meeting, though, city leaders and community members channeled a hope that they can work on those issues — together.