ST. PAUL, Minn. ― A black St. Paul man whom police fatally shot during a traffic stop last week appears to have been previously cited by police at least 31 times while driving, raising questions about racial profiling practices in the suburban St. Anthony police department.
Philando Castile, 32, had been accused by police of more than 50 violations in the two counties that encompass the suburb of Falcon Heights, where he was killed ― a record that stretches back to when he was 19, court records show.
The dozens of citations were for minor infractions that included speeding, improperly displaying a license plate and driving without proof of insurance; nearly half of the charges were eventually dismissed outright.
“We want people to know ‘driving while black’ has been an issue ― drivers pulled over for implicit bias,” Rashad Turner, an organizer with Black Lives Matter St. Paul, said last week.
The NAACP of St. Paul estimates that 80 percent to 90 percent people pulled over by St. Anthony police in the Falcon Heights jurisdiction are “either African-American or native African” and are cited for minor infractions, according to chapter president Jeffry Martin.
“Things hanging from the rearview mirror, a crack in your windshield that doesn’t obscure your view, a faulty turn signal,” Martin gave as examples. “There are so many traffic laws on the books that if you cited everyone for all of them, you would write a thousand more tickets a day.”
Castile’s violent death was watched by millions after his girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, streamed the interaction between the couple and St. Anthony police Officer Jeronimo Yanez on Facebook Live.
“He was reaching for his wallet and the officer just shot him in his arm,” Reynolds narrated in the video. “He shot his arm off.”
St. Anthony Police did not return requests for comment.
Castile was stopped along Larpenteur Avenue in the city of Falcon Heights, a main thoroughfare between Minneapolis and St. Paul.
With a population of roughly 5,500, the predominantly white Falcon Heights is the largest city that contracts the service of the St. Anthony police, a force with 23 officers.
Twin Cities resident Hawa Samatar said she regularly travels along Larpenteur Avenue, and said the thoroughfare is known among black residents for its questionable police stops of black motorists.
“Several people have told me, ‘When you’re going down Larpenteur, slow down,’” Samatar said.
“We want people to know ‘driving while black’ has been an issue ― drivers pulled over for implicit bias."Rashad Turner, Black Lives Matter Minneapolis Organizer
Within days of Castile’s death, Turner said, his group was fielding messages from local residents sharing similar instances of being pulled over for often dubious reasons, not just in the St. Anthony jurisdiction but in St. Paul or Minneapolis as well.
A recording purportedly of the audio of the police scanner from Castile’s traffic stop indicates Yanez stopped the car because he thought Castile looked like a recent robbery suspect.
“The driver looks more like one of our suspects, just ‘cause of the wide-set nose,” the officer said.
Castile, who was licensed for concealed carry, disclosed during the stop that he was armed and had a valid license, according to Reynolds. Reynolds has said the officer asked Castile both to put his hands up and also get his ID ― and then shot him when he reached for his wallet.
“It shows that when you allow racial profiling to continue, to exist and grow, you don’t get a reduction in crime and an increase in public safety,” Martin said. “You just get an increase in African-American contact with the police for minor incidents.”
“And what we see in this climate, in this day in history, this can lead to death,” he added.
Thomas Kelly, a lawyer for Yanez, said his client “was reacting to the presence of that gun” and not to Castile’s race.
Castile had no felony criminal record and was not wanted in connection with any crime.
Castile, who was killed just days shy of his 33rd birthday, was a well-loved presence at St. Paul’s J.J. Hill Montessori school, where he worked as a lunchroom supervisor. School parents told the Minneapolis Star-Tribune Castile was “like Mr. Rogers with dreadlocks.”
At a vigil for Castile, students, parents and teachers mourned the man they said was always smiling and eager to help kids, even going so far as to memorize the names and food allergies of all 500 students.
After Castile’s death, Black Lives Matter Minneapolis met briefly with Falcon Heights Mayor Peter Lindstrom to demand the city end its contract with the St. Anthony Police Department.
The group met again on Sunday at the Progressive Baptist Church in St. Paul ― this time with Lindstrom, St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman, St. Paul Police Chief Todd Axtell, NAACP National CEO and President Cornell Brooks and Gov. Mark Dayton (D).
Martin described the meeting as productive and said the talks focused on what kind of legislation could be enacted to “beef up the racial profiling laws.”
He also said the group discussed how forces like the St. Anthony police can keep more comprehensive data on race and police interactions.
“You can’t police yourself if you don’t know what you’re doing out there,” Martin said.
He was optimistic that Minnesota could actually become a nationwide leader in reforming laws to stamp out racial profiling. “We left the table knowing we’ll be back in a productive way and not a reactionary way for the next tragedy.”