Falcon Heights awarded for task force work in wake of Castile shooting

Officials say there’s plenty more to be done

The League of Minnesota Cities announced June 21 that Falcon Heights was a winner of its 2018 City of Excellence Award.

Falcon Heights was recognized for its Task Force on Inclusion and Policing, which it convened as the city tried to grapple with the July 2016 police killing of Philando Castile, a 32-year-old black man who was shot to death by a St. Anthony police officer during a traffic stop on Larpenteur Avenue.

“I’ve always said that our residents should be proud of the work that they put in after the shooting,” said Mayor Peter Lindstrom. “Certainly the chips were down and our residents really stepped up when called upon to dedicate their time and expertise to helping our community move forward on such vexing problems.”

Castile’s death at the hands of a St. Anthony police officer sparked rounds of protests at the governor’s mansion in St. Paul, and at St. Anthony and Falcon Heights city halls.

Per Falcon Heights’ application for the award, the task force first met in December 2016, meeting 13 times to lay out a set of recommendations on policing and inclusion. Residents added their thoughts on the community’s values at five community conversation events, in which more than 180 people participated.

Council member Melanie Leehy was co-chair of the 11-member task force prior to being elected to the city council last fall.

“Just to be doing things in the midst of tragedy and crisis is a feat,” she said, noting that she appreciated the League recognizing the work, as well as everyone who was involved with the task force and community conversations. 

“All of that was critical,” she said.

 

Switch in departments

The task force’s work was helped by experts from various organizations, including the Minnesota State Office for Collaboration and Dispute Resolution and the University of Minnesota.

Lindstrom said there was no blueprint for how a suburban city of 5,500 people should react to a high profile event such as Castile’s death.

“What I knew right from the get-go was that we couldn’t bury our heads in the sand, that we needed outside experts ... to lend their expertise on how to navigate the situation.”

The task force made its recommendations on policing and inclusion to the city council in mid-2017. 

They included more city input on police training, hiring and data transparency, as well as calling for more city investment in addressing persistent sources of disparities and exclusion. The council unanimously adopted all the recommendations.

City Administrator Sack Thongvanh said implementing the task force’s recommendations “will be a living process.”

That process was affected when St. Anthony ended it’s two decades-long policing contract with Falcon Heights as a direct result of the Castile shooting. The city has been patrolled for the past six months by the Ramsey County Sheriff’s Office. 

So far, despite some expected bumps in the road, Thongvanh said, “I think it’s played out pretty well.”

He said the sheriff’s office already had in place policies in line with the task force recommendations, for example with respect to community policing, and that community meetings held with the sheriff’s office last fall in the run up to the police department switch helped deputies and others get up to speed on residents’ expectations.

Lindstrom also said that Thongvanh meets monthly with the sheriff’s office and administrators from the other communities it patrols, to voice and discuss concerns. 

“We have a real seat at the table to make decisions,” Lindstrom said, noting such a set up was recommended by the task force. While the lines of communication were open with the St. Anthony Police Department, he said, the contract included only one formal meeting with Falcon Heights each year.

Still, Thongvanh said, the sheriff’s department, which also patrols Arden hills, Little Canada, North Oaks, Shoreview, Vadnais Heights and White Bear Township, is still getting up to speed on Falcon Heights’ unique attributes, such as the Back to the 50’s car show and the Soundset hip-hop festival, both of which are held at the State Fairgrounds.

Beyond events, the city is also unique, Thongvanh said, in its residents, who are “very committed to the community and making this a better place.”

 


‘Unity Day’ event: In May, the Falcon Heights City Council proclaimed July 6 as “Restoration Day” and July 7 as “Unity Day” in memory of Philando Castile, who was killed during a police traffic stop in the city on July 6, 2016. A Unity Day event will be held July 7 at Falcon Heights City Hall, 2077 Larpenteur Ave., beginning around 5 p.m.


 

What’s owed

When it comes to the task force’s recommendations on creating a more inclusive community, Leehy said she’s trying to keep her expectations realistic.

“That’s the part where I wish we were further down the road, but it takes so much time to find the money to do the next step,” she said. “I feel we’re a few months behind on that but we’re not losing traction.”

The city is exploring various grants to help fund a staffer or intern to put more time into inclusion initiatives, Thongvanh said, while also noting that the city has been able to share its experience of working through the Castile shooting with others.

Thongvanh, Leehy, council member Randy Gustafson, who also co-chaired the task force, and John Thompson, a friend of Castile’s who was outspoken in calling for justice in his case, are involved with the Kettering Foundation’s Shared Learning Exchanges. The research foundation holds meetings where dozens come together to share experiences or lessons learned, along with best practices.

“John was the first person to come to the podium and really let us have it,” Lindstrom said of Thompson’s appearances at Falcon Heights City Council meetings just after Castile was killed. “Now we’re working hand in hand.”

Though the city is acting on the task force recommendations and appears to be working towards self improvement in the wake of tragedy, Leehy and others said there is plenty of more work to be done.

“We got an award for putting a plan in place, now we have to work the plan,” she said. “We owe that to the city, we owe that to Philando’s family and everyone who participated.”

 

– Mike Munzenrider can be reached at mmunzenrider@lillienews.com or 651-748-7813

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