Falcon Heights residents call for change in wake of police killing

A sign on Larpenteur Avenue near where Philando Castile was killed by a police officer in Falcon Heights. Residents, including the owners of the property in the photo, attended a July 13 city council meeting demanding the city take action.

As memorials on Larpenteur Avenue for Philando Castile, the 32-year-old black man killed by a St. Anthony police officer in Falcon Heights July 6, continue to grow, the city and its residents are trying to figure out what’s next.

Falcon Heights held its regularly scheduled city council meeting July 13 and after handling standard city business, the meeting quickly turned to a discussion about Castile’s death during a routine traffic stop at Larpenteur and Fry Street.

In brief comments, council members said the killing of the St. Paul elementary school cafeteria supervisor was a tragedy, and that they were looking to the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension investigation of the incident for facts. 

Both council members Tony Fischer and Pamela Harris said they’d only heard good things about the St. Anthony Police Department, which has contracted with the city for police service since the mid-1990s.

Members of the public took issue with the assertion.

“Personal experience does not speak for every single experience or every citizen,” Joan Dao, a former member of the Roseville Human Rights Commission, said to the council.

“I would like to express a little bit of skepticism that this is the first time you are hearing about racism; if this is the first time you are hearing about police stops and traffic stops and the fear of police — you’re not listening to your citizens,” Dao said.

“I look around this room,” she added, “and I’m one of three people of color in here, and you don’t know anything about me.”

“I was devastated that our police killed someone in my name ... in the name of protecting me,” said Phillip Sellew, a 20-year Falcon Heights resident. “I do not find that acceptable or livable.”

Sellew called out council members for relying on the investigation of the killing for their facts about the case. “Several of you said we need to wait for the facts — we have one fact: Somebody died.”

Resident Chuck Laszewski called for the council to end its contract for policing with St. Anthony by the end of 2016, adding, “This one act has permanently besmirched Falcon Heights.”

He, too, called for action on the council’s part despite the ongoing BCA investigation into the shooting. Laszewski said the city should look at the contract as a business transaction and St. Anthony police as a vendor. “In this case the vendor screwed up royally.”

Closing out the hour-long meeting, Mayor Peter Lindstrom said the discussion that night was the beginning of a listening process. He’d earlier said the council simply did not have time since the killing of Castile to come up with a fully-formed plan of action.

“I myself feel that I’m deeply upset, deeply hurt by what has happened in our community that I love,” Lindstrom said. “I’m not OK with it. And I think we need to look closely at how we’re doing police operations. I’m not calling for anything immediate right now ... but I do think that we ought to know about the arrests in Falcon Heights.”


Emergency meeting

Falcon Heights also convened an emergency city council meeting July 8.

The city council voted to increase city administrator Sack Thongvanh’s spending cap from $5,000 to $50,000 for emergency management through the end of the year.

Reached after the meeting, Thongvanh said the move frees him to spend more on supplies such as barricades, water or portable bathrooms in the event of an emergency, without seeking council authorization.

He also said the vote could apply to situations such as the powerful July 5 thunderstorms, when the city might hire outside workers to clear storm debris or to rent heavy moving equipment.

The council also authorized Thongvanh to hire a public relations firm, though at the July 13 meeting, Lindstrom said the city decided against hiring outside PR help.

As early as July 8, Falcon Heights city releases told residents they would see squad cars and police vehicles from outside agencies patrolling city streets — on July 11 squad cars from Mounds View and Maplewood were parked outside City Hall.

Thongvanh said that as of July 12, St. Anthony police had restarted some patrols, though outside agencies would be continuing to help. 


Prayer and lament

Falcon Heights United Church of Christ held a service of prayer and lament July 9, according to an announcement, “to bring the community together in prayer and witness in the police shooting of Philando Castile.”

Lindstrom spoke at the beginning of the service, quoting the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and mentioning the killing of a black man by police in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and the five police officers who were shot and killed by a sniper in Dallas.

His remarks can be seen in a video posted to the church’s Facebook page.

“To the families and friends of the fallen, they have my utmost sympathy,” Lindstrom said. “But it would be a betrayal to all those who have taken a bullet, whether they have black skin or wear a blue uniform, if we retreated to a comfortable silence once the hot spotlight and the TV cameras are gone.

“Investigations will be completed, policies and procedures will be reviewed,” he said, “but beyond these steps we must search our hearts for our common humanity.”

Linda Owen, a member of the church who serves on its executive board, said the church was packed and the service seemed necessary.

“Obviously, it was something that met a lot of needs,” Owen said, adding that people from outside the immediate area were in attendance.

“I think a lot of people were hurting, were angry, were sad, were feeling despair, and this was a place to come and leave those emotions and get some spiritual sustenance,” she said.

Owen said the service of prayer and lament wasn’t necessarily about finding solutions, “but to connect spiritually about what the heck happened here.”


Lauderdale cancels meeting

Lauderdale, which also contracts for police service with the St. Anthony Police Department, canceled its regularly-scheduled city council meeting on July 12.

“We apologize if this creates any inconveniences for the community,” a city statement sent by city administrator Heather Butkowski said. 

“We work hard to serve our community, but felt it made sense to cancel the meeting based on the recent events of the past week.”

The Lauderdale City Council held what the statement described as a “brief meeting” July 15 in order to “approve routine business.” The meeting happened after the deadline for this edition of the Review.

Other items from the canceled meeting, the statement said, would be moved to the council meeting scheduled for July 26 or taken up later.


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

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