Use-of-force experts analyze Castile shooting video

View from Officer Jeronimo Yanez' squad car.
The view from Officer Jeronimo Yanez' squad car during the traffic stop and shooting of Philando Castile in Falcon Heights.
Bureau of Criminal Apprehension

On Tuesday, the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension released its investigative files in the shooting death of Philando Castile, the black driver killed during a traffic stop in Falcon Heights last July by St. Anthony police officer Jeronimo Yanez.

Among the photos and reports and interviews in the release was the dashcam video from Yanez's squad car. It is the only video and audio — the officer was wearing a microphone on his uniform — of the shooting and the moments leading up to it.

Yanez went on trial for the shooting, facing second-degree manslaughter and two felony firearms charges. A Ramsey County jury, which watched the video several times during the trial, found him not guilty on all three charges last week.

Before the document release, the public had only seen a selective transcript of that video, embedded in the charging documents filed by Ramsey County Attorney John Choi.

On Tuesday, the public could watch the video for the first time.

MPR News asked two use-of-force experts to watch the video and offer impressions of what they saw:

• Michael Quinn is a retired Minneapolis police sergeant and training officer for the department.

• Emanuel Kapelsohn is a firearms trainer and consultant from Pennsylvania who was called by the defense to testify as a use-of-force expert during the trial.

Editor's note: The videos below are difficult to watch, with violence and offensive language.

The traffic stop

A white Oldsmobile driving west on Larpenteur Avenue has a brake light out, and the St. Anthony police officer patrolling that stretch of road has radioed to his partner that he thinks the driver looks like a robbery suspect.

The officer, Jeronimo Yanez, pulls behind the car and turns on his lights. The car pulls into the right turn lane and stops almost immediately.

Quinn: "The squad's behind a car with a brake light that's not working. This is typically a good time to stop a car, because if they're unaware of the brake light being out, you're doing them a service by saying, you know, your brake light's out, you need to get it fixed. So, that part all looks good."

The reason for the stop

The officer steps up to the driver's window. His partner, Joseph Kauser, has caught up to him and is standing toward the back of the car, on the passenger side.

"The reason I pulled you over — your brake lights are out" — specifically, the top and driver's side brake lights, Yanez tells the driver, Philando Castile.

Quinn: "It's a routine traffic stop, at this point, based on what he's going to be saying: Tail light's out.

And he immediately steps up into the window. Clearly he's not feeling threatened. If he's feeling threatened in any way, he'd be standing back a little bit behind the door, talking to him through the window, which I know makes people uncomfortable and gives people the sense that you don't trust the driver.

But when you have a sense that there's something wrong, that's what you do: You stand back a little bit."

Kapelsohn: "A number of things struck me. First of all, both Officer Yanez and Mr. Castile ... each of them was very polite to the other. There was nothing belligerent or aggressive about their conversations on either part."

The license and registration

After Yanez has walked up to the window and explains the reason for the stop, he politely asks Castile the standard traffic-stop question: "Do you have your license and insurance?"

Quinn: "OK, so he's asked him for his license and insurance, he seems fairly comfortable standing there, but he is right in the window."

As part of his training work, Quinn said he uses color coding to help officers identify and describe their level of situational awareness. The codes move from green — the zone where most people exist, most of the time — to yellow to red to black.

In the green zone, you're calm and generally not very aware. This is checking-your-phone mode: "No worries, no cares, you're not really aware of what's going on around you, and you really don't care," Quinn said.

But officers on duty, Quinn said, need to reside in the yellow zone. They need to be vigilant, acutely aware of their surroundings, and watching for people, their partner's safety, potential violations.

"You're aware of what's going on around you, you're trying to keep track of your partner, people on the street, people driving, all that stuff. It's not a hyper vigilance but being very vigilant to what's going on," he said.

As he watched the video, Quinn said Yanez appeared to be in that zone, an appropriate place for an officer making a traffic stop.

The mention of a firearm

Castile hands Yanez his insurance card, which the officer tucks into his uniform pocket.

"Sir, I have to tell you I do have a ..." Castile starts telling the officer calmly.

"OK," Yanez interrupts, calmly.

"...a firearm on me," Castile finishes.

Quinn:

"Now we're in the red zone, because now, not only are we aware, we're watching him, we're careful. But now we know there is a potential threat. And he's already told us what the threat is, so it's very clear to us what it is.

When that happens, he should take appropriate action to deal with it."

'Don't reach for it'

At the mention of a firearm, Yanez responds with, "OK. Don't reach for it, then."

"I'm not," Castile replies.

"Don't pull it out," Yanez says.

"I'm not," Castile replies.

Kapelsohn: "It struck me that the officer's response to that was very calm and very measured.

He didn't — some people have said he overreacted or he panicked, but it was nothing of the sort. He said, 'OK, don't take it out, then.'"

Quinn: "A reasonable officer at that point would step back out of the line of fire, get away from the car, and start giving him commands ... to get your hands where I can see them, until we can sort this out.

And then he would tell his partner, at the same time, 'The driver says he has a firearm.' Now you can start asking questions. Your level of awareness has jumped way up, you've got your gun out, you're ready to do whatever's necessary, but you're not shooting, because there hasn't been any threat to you."

Final warning

From the dashcam video, you can see Yanez reaching into the car, as Diamond Reynolds, Castile's girlfriend, says from the passenger seat that her boyfriend is not pulling his gun.

"Don't pull it out!" Yanez shouts, unholstering his weapon.

Kapelsohn: "And it was then that Mr. Castile apparently started to reach for what the officer believed was his firearm, right down by his right thigh or his right pants pocket.

You can see on the tape that Officer Yanez reaches into the open window of the car with his left hand, and he said he did this to try to block Mr. Castile from reaching for his gun.

But that was unsuccessful."

Quinn: "When he gives him that information that there's a firearm in the car on him, Yanez, rather than going to that next level of awareness, which says, OK, I need to do A-B-C, goes completely by there and goes into what we call a black zone, where you don't function.

Your brain just kind of stops working."

When Yanez took the stand during his trial this month, the prosecution asked in cross-examination if he had heard Castile say, "I'm not pulling it out," after he said he had a firearm.

Yanez told the court, "by that time, I was focused on his hands. I was getting tunnel vision."

Seven shots

Yanez fires seven shots into the driver's side of the white Oldsmobile, five seconds after Philando Castile said the word "firearm."

Five of those bullets hit Philando Castile.

Quinn: "This is where, I think, Yanez goes into that black zone.

He heard the words about the gun and his first response is, 'Don't pull it out.'

But rather than giving him commands — 'let me see your hands, keep them where I can see them until we can sort this out' — and stepping back out of the way he does just the opposite. He steps up in front of the window, draws his gun and starts shooting."

Kapelsohn: "It's very significant to me, and I testified to this in court, that the officer did not back away from the car. He did not make distance between himself and Mr. Castile, and he did not use the car's B-pillar. That's the post right behind the driver's window.

He did not use the B-pillar for protection, as officers are trained normally to do. Instead, he stayed right in the window of the car while firing, and even leaned into the car. So the officer purposely endangered himself by staying right there in the window of the car in order to minimize the danger to the three others."

Kapelsohn said, when watching the video, Yanez's behavior, and how he handled the stop and the shooting, looked reasonable.

"In fact, he probably waited longer than he perhaps should have, in order to be able to defend himself," he said. "But he didn't fire until he saw the gun, and at that point he has three-tenths of a second if someone was going to try to shoot him. Not that Mr. Castile was, but the officer doesn't know that, of course."

Castile is bleeding and moaning, buckled into the front seat.

'I'm going to take your spot'

Legs spread in a shooting stance, Yanez keeps his gun trained on Castile. He's screaming profanities and issuing orders to Diamond Reynolds, who's still sitting in the front passenger seat.

Just three seconds after the shooting, the Oldsmobile's rear passenger-side door opens. Reynolds' 4-year-old daughter has gotten out of her carseat and is letting herself out of the car, onto the sidewalk. Officer Kauser, Yanez's partner, steps in and scoops her up.

Quinn: "And you saw that, continued from the time he shot multiple rounds until several minutes afterwards, when he's still standing there cursing, swearing, totally paralyzed. Unable to function.

He was totally dysfunctional for a long period of time. So instead of getting the victim out of the car and starting CPR or any sort of first aid, he's lost. He doesn't know what to do.

And I'm sure he's had the training on what to do, because he's been on the street for a while and he's had good training, as far as I know.

But he doesn't do it."

It's at that point that Reynolds calmly turns on Facebook Live on her phone. Forty seconds after Yanez fires at Castile, she begins to stream what happens next. She explains to the camera what just happened.

On the dashcam video, Yanez is still screaming, breathing heavily. Sirens scream into view. Other officers start arriving. They block off the street, and they try to get Yanez to move away from the driver's side window. He's still standing there, his gun pointed at Castile, who's still buckled into the front seat.

Another officer tells Yanez, "I'm going to take your spot," and Yanez walks out of the video's frame. Other officers struggle to get Castile out of the car. They eventually pull him by his arms onto the ground and begin to administer CPR.

Yanez walks off camera and starts talking with a fellow officer. The tape includes about two minutes of their conversation, captured by the microphone on Yanez's uniform.

What the jury saw

Almost a year later, after Yanez had been charged and the trial began, the jury in Yanez's case watched that video — first during the prosecution's opening statements, then several times throughout the trial and finally once more during deliberations, after they'd asked the judge if they could watch it one more time.

And after watching that video several times, and weighing the other evidence and arguments presented in the trial, the jury found Yanez not guilty on all three counts: Second-degree manslaughter and two counts of felony dangerous discharge of a firearm.

Quinn: "I think it's really difficult for a citizen to put themselves in the shoes of a reasonable officer at the scene of a scenario like this. And I think I understand why they came back with a not-guilty [verdict] after viewing the video.

Not being police officers, not being put in that situation themselves — they don't have to do that. They can say, 'Whoa. That would have scared me too. Because if he's reaching down and he's already said he's got a gun, I would have a right to be afraid.'

A reasonable officer I think would have acted differently — and at least would have given Philando a chance to explain, to do something different other than what happened."

Kapelsohn: "We can't expect, and the law doesn't expect, police officers to be perfect.

If we established a standard of perfection, we'd have very few, if any, people who could meet that standard to become police officers. Instead, what the law requires is that the police officers act reasonably, and that they use what is called objectively reasonable force.

And obviously the jury here, after four and a half days of deliberation, decided that the force used by Officer Yanez was objectively reasonable when he saw Mr. Castile pulling a gun out of his pocket."

MPR News' Riham Feshir, Tom Crann, Tracy Mumford, Cody Nelson and Meg Martin contributed to this report.

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