Philando Castile's mother creates 'tool kit' to help families after police shootings
ST. PAUL — Talking about officer-involved shootings is not something Valerie Castile ever wanted to be doing.
But more than two years after her son, Philando Castile, was shot and killed by a St. Anthony police officer during a routine traffic stop, that’s where she finds herself.
“It’s only right that we treat people like human beings,” she said. “If they are doing something and they are stopped by the police, give them their day in court.”
Valerie Castile spoke last week as part of an online video conference in which about 70 law enforcement agencies and other groups took part.
She’s teamed up with Ramsey County Attorney John Choi this past year to help develop a tool kit for prosecutors and police to assess how prepared they are for these types of incidents and what they can do to better handle them in the future. The video conference was a presentation of that tool kit to a national audience.
“I hope you guys take time out to read it and absorb the information and just think about it and say, ‘You know what? This is doable work,’” Castile said. “What we are asking is basically just about right and wrong. … It’s not complicated at all because some of the information in the tool kit you are already doing, and if you’re not, ask yourself, ‘Why am I not doing what should be done?’ ”
Philando's death draws national attention
On July 6, 2016, Philando Castile was driving home from a store with his girlfriend and the woman’s young child when he was pulled over. He informed officer Jeronimo Yanez that he had a gun on him after Yanez had asked to see his license and proof of insurance.
Less than two minutes later, Yanez fired into the vehicle five times, killing Castile, who worked as a cafeteria supervisor at a St. Paul elementary school.
Choi charged the officer with second-degree manslaughter and reckless discharge of a firearm, but a jury acquitted him of the charges after Yanez testified at trial that he was in fear for his life when he saw Castile move his hand toward his gun.
Castile’s death and Yanez’s trial drew national attention and sparked protests in the Twin Cities.
The case also led the Institute for Innovation in Prosecution at John Jay College in New York to join some 50 people from across the country in a yearlong discussion on officer-involved shootings.
Members included prosecutors, police chiefs, policy experts and family members of those killed in officer-involved incidents.
A number of Minnesotans were involved as well. In addition to Castile and Choi, former Hastings and Maplewood police chief Paul Schnell, who is now Minnesota’s commissioner of corrections, Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman and Philando Castile’s uncle, Clarence Castile, participated.
During his discussion in the video conference, Choi said his involvement helped him better understand the perspective of families thrust into the criminal justice system, waiting to see how it will respond to a loved one’s death.
“Many of these family members … never felt they were connected to their prosecutor when they were in the process of making a (charging) decision and (didn’t understand) why it ha(d) to take so long,” Choi said. “These are things I think are really critical for us to understand as prosecutors.”
What's in the tool kit
Intentionally staying connected to families and more broadly building and maintaining relationships with communities is one of the ways the tool kit Choi and Castile have worked on encourages prosecutors to be better positioned to respond to crisis situations such as officer-involved shootings.
It also advises agencies to collect data on racial disparities in their criminal justice system, establish or strengthen processes to evaluate police officer misconduct and develop and implement investigative protocols that can be activated when an officer-involved shooting takes place.
And it gives advice on what to do after an officer-involved shooting, including immediately assigning a prosecutor to oversee the investigation, reaching out to the family within 24 hours and the media within 48 hours.
A prosecutor’s office should aim to complete its investigation into whether charges are warranted within four to six months and release its decision and full report to the public no more than two weeks later, according to the tool kit.
If charges aren’t filed, prosecutors should discuss the reasons with the affected family and turn over its investigative findings should they choose to pursue a civil suit.
They also should turn over findings to police departments or other oversight boards if an administrative liability might be in play with the officer’s employer.
What's the reaction?
Dakota County Attorney Jim Backstrom commended the effort, saying he intended to carefully read and review the tool kit. Backstrom’s office implemented a policy for reviewing these kinds of cases without the use of a grand jury a couple years ago.
St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter also applauded the recommendations.
“We need every tool at our disposal to strengthen trust between our officers and community,” Carter said in a statement. “This tool kit contains clear, concise goals that Saint Paul and Ramsey County can work on together to achieve.”
Choi said he knows it won’t make sense for every jurisdiction to adopt all the recommendations. Nevertheless, he’s hoping it will at least encourage law enforcement and prosecutors to examine what they’re doing.
Most important, he hopes it nudges officials to engage more with their communities, he said.
“How arrogant if we thought we knew all the answers and we didn’t need to listen to our community,” Choi said. “I would say to government officials across the country, when we are thinking about our work, we have to recognize it’s not ours, it’s the people’s. … Nothing will really change unless we do it together.”