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State panel examining police use of force meets amid protests

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Kimberly Handy Jones (left), the mother of Cordale Handy
Kimberly Handy Jones (left), the mother of Cordale Handy who was fatally shot by St. Paul police in 2017, is joined by the family members of other people killed in police shootings in protesting a state panel to address police use of force, at the Minnesota Capitol in St. Paul on Saturday.
John Nguyen | MPR News

Updated: 8:55 p.m. | Posted: 10:17 a.m.

A day that started with protest ended with an hourslong discussion of procedure and policy as a new state panel on police use of force met for the first time Saturday at the Minnesota Capitol.

The 16-member working group was announced last month and led by Attorney General Keith Ellison and Public Safety Commissioner John Harrington.

"The purpose of the group is to reduce police-involved deadly force encounters," Ellison said as the meeting fully got underway after noon. "Whether or not such an encounter is deemed to be justified or not — the goal is to reduce them, to reduce any interactions where we lose people."

The scope of the panel includes how such incidents are investigated and prosecuted, and potential policy and procedural changes that could reduce deadly encounters.

The makeup of the panel drew pushback from the start, as protesters — including family members of Minnesotans who died in encounters with police — filled the meeting room and prevented the hearing from beginning at its scheduled 9 a.m. time. They said the panel needed representatives of families affected by police shootings, and that the group was too heavily skewed toward lawmakers and law enforcement.

"I didn't ask to be here. You sent for me. I'm here. When you killed my son, you sent for me," said Kimberly Handy Jones, the mother of Cordale Handy — who was fatally shot by St. Paul police in 2017 — as she spoke directly to the panel. "What the hell have you all lost? Nobody over there has lost a son. ... You lost compassion."

Family members of Minnesotans killed in police shootings
Family members of Minnesotans killed in police shootings hold a banner listing the names of people who have died in encounters with police, during a protest against a state panel to address police use of force, at the Minnesota Capitol in St. Paul on Saturday.
John Nguyen | MPR News

"How dare you have this meeting with no members of any families that didn't get justice from this system," said Michelle Gross with Communities United Against Police Brutality.

"We are not standing for it. We will not have it," she continued, amid calls to shut the meeting down. The lack of family representation makes the panel illegitimate, protesters said. They also renewed calls for an independent state agency to investigate police shootings. 

The protesters voiced concerns for more than 90 minutes. Ellison engaged with them, but opted to disband the meeting just after 10:30 a.m. The meeting resumed a couple hours later without interruption, with a slightly altered agenda and lineup of speakers including prosecutors, law enforcement officials and two women who lost sons in police shootings.

It wrapped up after 6 p.m. Saturday; as the meeting ended, Ellison said the protests were an important part of the day.

"I will say that this morning was a good way to get started because it definitely injected the degree of seriousness, urgency and heartfelt pain that so many people have experienced in connection with this issue," he said.

Opening the afternoon session, Ellison said that "we have the right people in the room — that's not to say there are not more who could also add to the work we're here to do. 

"We have Democrats, Republicans, law enforcement, prosecution, citizens, community voices. We have people from the mental health community, we have people from tribal communities, we have people from across the state of Minnesota. I think we have a diverse group and I think we are well-positioned to take on this difficult subject."

Public Safety Commissioner John Harrington, Attorney General Keith Ellison
Minnesota Public Safety Commissioner John Harrington (left) and Attorney General Keith Ellison lead the first meeting of the Working Group on Police-Involved Deadly Force Encounters at the State Capitol on Saturday.
Image from Minnesota Department of Public Safety video

Valerie Castile, mother of Philando Castile — who was shot and killed by a police officer during a 2016 traffic stop in Falcon Heights, Minn. — was the first speaker to address the panel.

"It's not OK. I'm a mother 100 percent, and I care about this community. And what happened today is because our community is traumatized,” she told the panel, referring to the morning protests. “Everybody in this community is hurting because day after day, it's always something happened, someone's child is being killed — and we have to do whatever we can do to change that.”

Castile continued, referring to the protesters as she spoke to the panelists: "They came in here because you all are here, and they know in order for something to be done, they need to talk to all of y'all — so what better place to storm? ... 'You can't do nothing but hear me, 'cause I'm right here in your face.’ So that's why they did that, and I commend them on doing it. ... We're hurting, we need your help, we're traumatized. What can you do to help us? We can't change no laws — you can. And it's your responsibility and your obligation to help us. Help your community."

Castile was joined by Wanda Johnson, whose son Oscar Grant III was fatally shot by police in Oakland, Calif., in 2009; the incident was portrayed in the movie "Fruitvale Station."

Johnson told the panel that police officers need to go beyond structured, police-originated engagement activities and instead meet the community where it's at.

"The ideal is to — go to the baseball game; you don't have to host it. ... How about mentoring (kids)? How about saying, 'You know what, I know this young man lost his father.' How about you take that young man, and you take him to the movies. You spend some time with him. You get to know him. And not have any other ulterior motive involved in it. ...

"If you want to change the community, you've got to get uncomfortable."

Valerie Castile, mother of Philando Castile
Valerie Castile, mother of Philando Castile -- who was shot and killed by police officers during a 2016 traffic stop in Falcon Heights, Minn. -- addresses the Working Group on Police-Involved Deadly Force Encounters at the State Capitol on Saturday.
Image from Minnesota Department of Public Safety video

Subsequent speakers on Saturday afternoon included Ramsey County Attorney John Choi, Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman, and law enforcement officials. Topics of discussion included how officers are trained on use of force and de-escalation; how they’re trained to handle people in a mental health crisis; and officers’ access to mental health care.

Brad Wise, chief of the Coon Rapids Police Department with 28 years of experience in law enforcement, told the panel that he's concerned about a drop-off in the number and diversity of people entering the field.

"We have to make sure that when all this is said and done, that we leave the status of the profession being one that young people want to choose, a wide variety of people (want to) choose. Some of the people that were here this morning, speaking from the heart — those people need to choose that profession, too,” he said, to ensure police officers represent the community.

Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension Superintendent Drew Evans outlined the process by which the BCA investigates police use-of-force incidents. Evans said the BCA is striving for greater transparency and, among other changes, is looking to improve communications with families who have lost loved ones.

"One of the things we've been exploring currently is a victim-witness coordinator position embedded in the BCA so that families have access to resources, families have the ability to have direct communication on an ongoing basis,” Evans said. “Our agents are really good at communication up front and then they get busy with other cases. We need witness coordinators that can have that ongoing dialogue with families to make sure their needs are met."

The current handling of police shooting investigations was a recurring theme Saturday, with Valerie Castile raising concerns about how her son’s death was investigated and saying an independent agency was needed.

Siblings of Isak Aden, a 23-year-old man shot and killed by police in Eagan in July, took part in the morning protests and returned to testify at the end of the day.

Badrudin Aden told the panel that he's seen inconsistencies in how the BCA has investigated his brother's case, compared to other police shootings. He also said the agency hasn't followed its stated procedures in that case.

"Every protester that was here today I can say, in a perfect world, (would agree with the investigative process) if the BCA was doing exactly what they said they would be doing," he told the panel. "The reason every single person is mad is because the BCA hasn't been doing exactly what they're saying."

Two more public hearings are scheduled; the next is Sept. 28 in Mankato. Protesters vowed to be back for any and all subsequent meetings of the panel.

Officials said there have been more than 100 shootings involving police across Minnesota since 2014.