DOJ listens to experiences with St. Anthony police


Curtis Avent spoke at the Department of Justice listening session Jan. 10 in St. Anthony Village, a part of the U.S. Department of Justice’s Community Oriented Policing Services review of the St. Anthony Police Department. The review comes in the wake of the police killing of Philando Castile, a black man, in Falcon Heights by a St. Anthony officer. Similar listening sessions took place in Falcon Heights and Lauderdale last week. Avent criticized the DOJ for having listening sessions in any single city, because the issue of race and policing, he said, affects more than any one community or police department.

Diverse groups from both within and outside the suburbs of Falcon Heights and St. Anthony Village packed the gym at Falcon Heights Elementary School and St. Anthony Village High School Jan. 9 and 10 for U.S. Department of Justice listening sessions about people’s experiences with the St. Anthony Police Department.

Events part of department review following Castile killing

The U.S. Department of Justice held back-to-back listening sessions in Falcon Heights, St. Anthony Village and Lauderdale Jan. 9-11, kicking off its review of the St. Anthony Police Department through its Community Oriented Policing Services program.

The COPS review came at the behest of St. Anthony police, and in the wake of the police killing of Philando Castile, who was shot by St. Anthony officer Jeronimo Yanez in July during a traffic stop in Falcon Heights.

The listening sessions were intended to be an opportunity for DOJ officials to hear about people’s experiences with St. Anthony police. They also served as a rallying point to remember Castile and an opportunity to vent about the slow reactions to his death and, though there were a handful of comments supportive of police, to complain about the state of policing in general.

The COPS review is slated to stretch over two years, and will include non-binding recommendations to the St. Anthony Police Department, as well as reports of the DOJ’s findings.

 

Falcon Heights

Some 150 people packed into the gym at Falcon Heights Elementary the snowy night of Jan. 9. DOJ officials said the listening session wasn’t specifically focused on Castile’s killing, though those who spoke made sure his memory was a part of the proceedings.

“I’m convinced if my friend was dressed as a lunchman, who served 300 students a day, he’d be here today,” boomed John Thompson, referring to Castile, who worked at J.J. Hill Montessori School in St. Paul as a lunchroom supervisor. While speaking, Thompson, an African-American, replaced his black “Philando” cap with a hairnet and donned a cafeteria uniform.

“Falcon Heights needs a fresh start” he said, referring to how the small suburb, which, along with Lauderdale, contracts for police service from St. Anthony. There have been repeated calls from residents and outside groups for Falcon Heights to end the contract.

Castile was killed on the south side of Larpenteur Avenue at Fry Street, and Thompson pointed out a common theme expressed by many about driving on Larpenteur: Black people are treated differently than white people by the police.

Others detailed their concerns about policing on Larpenteur: A white father of two said he and his sons, who drive older cars, have all had negative encounters with St. Anthony police and contended the department profiles cars. 

A white woman, who lives with her husband at Larpenteur and Fairview avenues, said that from their property she frequently witnesses the “aggressive policing” in the area of the intersection. 

A black mother from St. Paul said she was worried every time her son drove to Rosedale Center via Larpenteur, telling him to put his hands on the steering wheel at “10 and two,” to drive slowly and to turn his baseball cap forward.

“I want to give the Department of Justice an idea of what it’s like to be white in Falcon Heights,” said 20-year-old Isaac Mielke, who suggested there were striking differences in how white residents were treated compared to people of color. Mielke, who is white, said that growing up in Falcon Heights, St. Anthony police were essentially “invisible” to him, save for summer afternoons when officers would drop by block parties.

“Before Philando Castile’s murder, I certainly didn’t have anything against St. Anthony police,” he said. “I didn’t have anything ‘for’ them, either.”

Mielke said while his trust in police officers has been eroded, he still finds it difficult to think he could run afoul of St. Anthony police, because he’s white.

“I couldn’t imagine being arrested in Falcon Heights — I wouldn’t believe it,” he said.

 

St. Anthony

The auditorium at St. Anthony Village High School was nearly full by the time the DOJ listening session began the next night, Jan. 10.

“Why are you here?” Thompson asked COPS team members at his second listening session in as many nights. “We cried when we were tased, but the Department of Justice didn’t show up. We were maced, and the Department of Justice didn’t show up when we complained. Philando was murdered, and the Department of Justice did not show up.”

“So why are you here now?” he yelled, eliciting snaps and claps from other attendees. “To listen? We actually want somebody to do something; please do something.”

George Marks, a former St. Anthony City Council member, told a story of receiving assistance from local officers, and said he has only received help from the city’s police force, commending them for their service to the community. 

“To me,” Marks said, “the St. Anthony police are my best friends.” 

The elderly white man’s comments, coming midway during the emotional gathering, struck a nerve with many and induced a cry from the crowd and a single, audible “boo.”

Kelly Ibekwe, a 17-year-old African-American senior at St. Anthony Village High School, who spoke shortly after Marks, rebuked that “boo.”

“One of the main problems is this idea that it’s us against them,” Ibekwe said. “Whoever it was who was booing: I hear you, I understand you, and I’m completely against you,” she said. “You are not helping us; you are perpetuating the problem.” 

Ibekwe said she doesn’t believe all officers are “bad people; they don’t all want us dead.”

Later, an elderly white woman,  who wished to remain anonymous because she thought neighbors in her senior-housing complex might take issue with her views, spoke.

“I’m ashamed of our community,” she said. “I’ve seen this go on all my life in every community that I’ve lived in, and I always hoped that when I retired, I would retire to a community where there was a sense of community ... for everyone.” 

DOJ officials still wish to hear from residents and others about their experiences with the St. Anthony police force. 

Go to www.cops.usdoj.gov or email saintanthony.crita@us.doj.gov with your story, or to set up an interview.

 

Mike Munzenrider can be reached at mmunzenrider@lillienews.com or 651-748-7813. Follow him on Twitter @mmunzenrider.

Jesse Poole contributed to this story. 

 

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