Falcon Heights approves citizen groups to study body cameras, policing

Falcon Heights Mayor Peter Lindstrom
Falcon Heights Mayor Peter Lindstrom talks about a proposal to form a task force to evaluate policing in the city where Philando Castile was shot by a St. Anthony police officer in July.
Riham Feshir | MPR News

The city where Philando Castile was shot by a police officer took its first step toward police reform Wednesday, but not without criticism from residents and activists who have been urging a hard look at racial disparities in policing.

Falcon Heights city officials approved two citizen groups — one to look at police body cameras and another to study policing and inclusion in general.

At a special meeting Wednesday, Falcon Heights announced its collaboration with the cities of Lauderdale and St. Anthony to form a joint work group to study body camera policies. All three cities are policed by the St. Anthony Police Department.

The proposal came at a time of heightened scrutiny as police and African American communities across the country struggle to improve relations. As the council discussed the proposal, violent protests erupted around the country following the police shootings of black men earlier this week in Oklahoma and North Carolina.

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The shooting of Castile and other black men brought people from all over the metro to suburban Falcon Heights, a city of 5,000 residents, to speak about their experience driving there and to urge city officials to take action and set an example for other communities to follow.

Some from the public were critical of the body camera proposal, saying there is no need for additional footage when social media has played an important role in documenting police incidents. But others said it was at least a path toward a solution.

"I do believe that's a step forward in at least acknowledging and at least saying 'OK this is something we have been considering and this is something we are trying to do, to try to figure this out,' " said John Thompson, a friend of Castile's. "And that's something I didn't see when I first came here because when I first came here, I wanted to scream at you, you, you, you because you didn't have an agenda."

Wednesday's meeting was less confrontational than one two weeks ago when critics grew angry at what they perceived to be a lack of urgency and council members walked out. On Wednesday night, Mayor Peter Lindstrom acknowledged speakers' concerns and emotional connection to Castile's shooting. He called it a tragedy.

Lindstrom told a full house that body cameras provide an element of accountability, but admitted that a task force isn't a concrete action item.

"There is nothing that we can do up here to change what happened that night, but our duty is to respond," he said. "I do feel a sense of urgency."

Both groups, the body camera tri-city group, as well as the Falcon Heights policing and inclusion task force, will have until May to come up with a set of recommendations. But Lindstrom said he'll urge them to present action items sooner.

John Thompson
John Thompson, a friend of Philando Castile's, tells Falcon Heights officials a work group to study body camera is a step in the right direction at a special meeting Wednesday.
Riham Feshir | MPR News

Holding a copy of the President's Task Force on 21st Century Policing, Lindstrom said it will serve as a guide.

"It's not immediate change and I acknowledge that that can be frustrating," he said. "There is risk, no doubt about it, we've all seen task forces come and go and a report that goes on the shelf but there can be reward."

Speakers, which included city residents, community activists and members of Black Lives Matter, hope the group will come up with concrete changes to the way St. Anthony Police patrols the area. About 3 percent of the city's revenue come from fines and fees.

"I want a task force that's looking at the root issues. That's why you see policing along with the other aspects of inclusion in this task force," said Melanie Leehy, an African American Falcon Heights resident who plans to apply. "We do have to address trust, we have to address fear."

Both groups are limited to Falcon Heights residents or business owners along with council liaisons. The city turned down a recommendation from the public to open them up to the broader community, citing potential liability issues. But Council Member Pam Harris said she hopes members of the task force will gather input from others outside the city, including people of color.

Former Falcon Heights Mayor Sue Gehrz urged the council to clearly define what they're trying to achieve.

"My vision would be this," she said, "that five years from now, if any adult says to any teenager of color 'do not drive on Snelling or Larpenteur you will get stopped,' that everyone would turn to look at them and say, 'that's just an urban legend. That's not true.'"

The police officer who shot Castile at a traffic stop at Larpenteur Avenue and Fry Street, Jeronimo Yanez, remains on paid administrative leave as the investigation into the shooting continues.