Metro grapples with acquittal of cop who killed Philando Castile

Philandro Castile / Jeronimo Yanez
Philandro Castile / Jeronimo Yanez

Evidence from the case against Jeronimo Yanez, the police officer who shot and killed Philando Castile, was released June 20. This photo shows the car seat in which Castile was shot. courtesy of Ramsey County

Painful year comes to a head with June 16 verdict

 

Police officer Jeronimo Yanez shot and killed Philando Castile during a traffic stop July 6, 2016, in Falcon Heights, and on June 16 he was found not guilty of all criminal charges for the shooting.

Many perceived the event as an unjust shooting of a black man at the hands of police; it generated repercussions throughout the Twin Cities and beyond. 

Following the death of 32-year-old Castile, a popular cafeteria supervisor at J.J. Hill Montessori School in St. Paul, protests, marches and highway shutdowns ensued. Community groups, organizations and foundations were formed in the name of social justice, pressing for police reform to level the playing field for people of color, who, according to many, are often victims of injustice during police interactions. 

Other groups organized to support police officers, including then-St. Anthony officer Yanez. 

His claim was that he saw Castile reach for a gun, that he feared for his life and that he shot because Castile refused to follow orders when he told him, “Don’s reach for it.”

According to video and audio evidence, Castile himself said he was reaching for his wallet to give Yanez his driver’s license for which he’d just been asked. 

Castile’s dying words, referring to the gun he was licensed to carry, were, “I wasn’t reaching for it.”

 

Acquittal

After a months-long investigation conducted by the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, the Ramsey County Attorney’s Office considered the BCA’s findings. 

On Nov. 18, 2016, Ramsey County Attorney John Choi charged Yanez with second-degree manslaughter and two felony counts of dangerous discharge of a firearm for endangering Castile’s girlfriend Diamond Reynolds and her 4-year-old daughter — they were both in the car at the time of the shooting on Larpenteur Avenue.

Choi characterized the charges at the time as the “highest provable.”

Yanez’s trial began with jury selection the day after Memorial Day and about two weeks later, on June 16 — after five days of deliberations — the 12-member jury unanimously acquitted Yanez of all counts.

The decision by the jury, which included 10 jurors who appeared to be white and two who were black, sparked another wave of disapproval from supporters of the Castile family, who felt that justice had not been served. 

Speaking after the verdict, Castile’s mother, Valerie Castile, said her son was “murdered.”

“My son would never jeopardize any one else’s life by trying to pull a gun on an officer,” she said, decrying the judicial system and the state of Minnesota.

“The system continues to fail black people,” she said.

Her daughter, Allysza Castile, paralleled those remarks. 

“I will never have faith in the system,” she told scores of reporters outside the Ramsey County Courthouse in downtown St. Paul, following the verdict.

 

A people’s response

Later that afternoon a peaceful protest transpired; Castile family members marched among a 2,000-person-strong crowd, heading down University Avenue in St. Paul. 

Around 10:30 p.m., some 1,500 protesters reportedly turned to Interstate 94 and shut it down in both directions near St. Paul’s Rondo neighborhood, where Castile grew up. The busy highway was closed for about three hours and after repeated warnings, St. Paul police arrested 18 protestors who lingered after a final urge to clear the interstate. 

This was the second time protesters stepped in the way of traffic on that portion of  I-94. The first was on July 10, 2016, just days after Castile’s death. It led to the arrest of just more than 100 people and the injury of several police officers who were reportedly struck by thrown objects. 

Prior to the June 16 march, the City of St. Anthony Village, where Yanez worked for more than four years patrolling the contracted suburb of Falcon Heights, announced that Yanez would no longer work for the department.

 


PHOTO GALLERY: The morning of June 22, about 20 students from Fairview Alternative High School in Roseville walked down to the area of Larpenteur Avenue and Fry Street in Falcon Heights, where Philando Castile was shot and killed during a traffic stop last July 6. The students visited a memorial site commemorating Castile, and brought along painted kindness rocks to contribute to the memorial’s many flowers and signs. Laura Freer, the school’s principal, was there with the students and said they were there “to process the verdict.” She said other Roseville schools were also working on ways for students to process the June 16 news that police officer Jeronimo Yanez was acquitted of all charges related to killing Castile. CLICK HERE TO SEE THE PHOTOS


 

No return

“The public will be best served if officer Yanez is no longer a police officer in our city,” St. Anthony said in a statement. “The city intends to offer officer Yanez a voluntary separation agreement to help him transition to another career other than being a St. Anthony officer.”

“The terms of this agreement will be negotiated in the near future, so details are not available at this time. In the meantime, officer Yanez will not return to active duty.”

Soon after the announcement, a petition appeared on the advocacy website The Color of Change, stating, “Do the right thing. Fire Yanez without severance pay.” 

It was circulated on social media, including on the Facebook page of St. Anthony Villagers for Community Change, a group of about 500 members. 

The petition, addressing St. Anthony Mayor Jerry Faust, calls to “halt all ‘separation’ negotiations” with Yanez, who has been on paid administrative leave for the past year.

Yanez did, however, see a brief return to the department last August, a month after killing Castile.

Though he had not returned to patrolling the streets, his mere presence inside the police station prompted more than 100 people to show up to an all-day protest of his return.

The group of protesters gathered peacefully at the entrance to the community center in the 3300 block of Silver Lake Road N.E. in St. Anthony Village in opposition to Yanez’s Aug. 17 return to work. He was put back on leave.

 

New chief, new review 

St. Anthony Police Chief Jon Mangseth was sworn in just days before the shooting. He took the place of long-time chief John Ohl, who retired in June 2016.

After pressure from residents and outside groups, St. Anthony made a formal request to the U.S. Department of Justice and was granted a federal review of its police department.

The announcement of the comprehensive review came more than five months after Castile’s death and just weeks after Yanez was charged.

Called the Collaborative Reform Initiative for Technical Assistance, the audit is currently being conducted by the DOJ’s Washington, D.C.-based Community Oriented Policing Services — COPS.

Ronald Davis, director of COPS, said the two-year review process, which is “lengthy and transparent,” works to identify and implement recommendations for possible internal departmental reform.

The review is not categorized as an investigation into the Castile case nor any other anecdotal traffic stop or use of force incident, but instead, it’s a process that is “independent, objective and critical” for making the department a model for others across the nation, Davis said at a December press conference.

At that same press conference, Mangseth said he saw the initiative as a way to help the department “to serve the communities better.”

Still, three COPS community listening sessions held in Falcon Heights, St. Anthony and Lauderdale, which also contracts for policing from St. Anthony, were dominated by discussion of Castile’s killing and accusations of racial bias on the part of St. Anthony police.

The review is ongoing.

 

Body cameras

Another ongoing dialogue in St. Anthony, a suburb of approximately 9,000, is whether or not its police department will purchase and utilize officer body cameras. As it stands, the department has no policy requiring cameras on officers, but some assert that if it had, interpreting the July 6 shooting could have been easier.

Four days after the verdict, Ramsey County released evidence from the case for the public to review, including the police dash cam video. The video, now watched millions of times online, includes audio from a microphone that Yanez was wearing during the traffic stop. 

In addition, since the moments directly following the shooting, the public has also had exposure to Diamond Reynold’s Facebook Live video, which captured the aftermath of the shooting, with Yanez still pointing his handgun into the vehicle. He breaths loudly and curses after firing seven rounds, five of which struck Castile. 

Last October, the St. Anthony City Council formed a group called the Tri-City Work Group, partnering with Lauderdale and Falcon Heights. Since then, the group has discussed policies regarding police body cameras to potentially be used by St. Anthony police officers.

The group consists of resident volunteers and city officials. 

 

Protests, meetings & lanterns

There have been a number of protests in the wake of the jury’s verdict — including a June 18 march in St. Anthony — but not just protests. While some understand how they feel and wish to express it outwardly, others have been trying to sort through their feelings, according to recent St. Anthony Village High School graduate Kelly Ibekwe.

Ibekwe helped organize a meeting to “discuss the Yanez verdict” June 19 at the St. Anthony Village Middle School. 

She said the group consisted mostly of middle schoolers and some adults. 

The Philando Castile Relief Foundation, a nonprofit that formed earlier this year, has two events planned, not in protest, but in remembrance of Castile as the one year anniversary of his death approaches.

One on Thursday, July 6, is private event for friends and family of Castile.

A candlelight vigil will follow, starting at 9:15 p.m. at the Peace Garden, located on Larpenteur Avenue and Fry Street, where Castile was killed. 

From 6:30 to 9 p.m. the next day, July 7, folks are invited back to the 2000 block of Larpenteur Avenue for a barbeque, special music and messages from several community leaders. 

A lantern release will follow. 

Jesse Poole can be reached at jpoole@lillienews.com or at 651-748-7815.

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