LAUDERDALE, Minn. (CN) – The U.S. Justice Department heard stirring remarks from the public Wednesday night in the last of three meetings to take in criticism of a Minnesota police department following last summer’s traffic-stop shooting of Philando Castile.
The Department of Justice’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, or COPS, held three community listening sessions over the past week as part of a comprehensive assessment of the St. Anthony Police Department’s policies and practices.
The police department was deeply criticized nationwide over the July 2016 fatal shooting of Castile, which was captured on live video by Diamond Reynolds, who was a passenger in the stopped car along with her 4-year-old daughter in the backseat.
The first two meetings were held in St. Anthony and Falcon Heights on Monday and Tuesday nights, respectively. The DOJ hosted its last meeting on Wednesday in the city of Lauderdale, which is also served by the St. Anthony Police Department.
In the city hall, Dawn Bartylla, 56, spoke to Courthouse News before the meeting began, and said her overall opinion of the police department was “extremely good.” Bartylla says she worked as a police dispatcher in the past and knows folks from the St. Anthony Police Department.
“People need to think about all the times people don’t get shot other than these seriously crazy situations,” she said. “The public needs to understand that [police] are ordinary people just like us, and some make mistakes and I’m not sure if I could contain myself in that situation.”
According to Bartylla, there’s been talk among the Lauderdale community about proposals to get rid of the St. Anthony Police Department. But Bartylla says there is “no guarantee” that the problem will go away with a new police force.
“Why not work with the entity you have and try to make it better?” she asked.
Lauderdale is surrounded by Minneapolis, St. Paul, Roseville and Falcon Heights. Though it’s just minutes away from Minneapolis, the city has a small-town feel with only about 2,300 residents.
Bartylla says it’s a “good place to raise a family and grow up.” She was raised in Lauderdale and has lived in the city her entire adult life.
But Bartylla says policing has changed in Lauderdale since she was a child – after the city cut its police force due to budget restraints.
Since that decision, she says Lauderdale has also had policing contracts with the Ramsey County Sheriff’s Department and the city of Roseville.
“When we switched to the [St. Anthony Police Department] they made their presence known,” she said.
Bartylla says St. Anthony police have been” personable,” and the fatal shooting of Castile was “an anomaly.”
The 120 seats assembled in the meeting hall quickly filled by the time it started, making the room packed full with a hodgepodge of people not only from Lauderdale, but nearby cities too.
Two microphones were placed at both sides of the room, while DOJ representatives sat at a long rectangular table in front.
A woman named Nancy stood in front of a microphone and urged the agency to take the “group seriously.” She blatantly told listeners that she is of Scandinavian descent – “and so white” she wears “5,000 SPF during the summer,” drawing a few chuckles from the audience.
She explained that during the 20 years of being a homeowner in St. Anthony, she had been pulled over only once, with no ticket. She said she was a proud resident of St. Anthony until the shooting death of Castile.
“[Before] I was a housewife and I wasn’t an activist. Now I am,” she said.
John Thompson, a resident of St. Paul who was Castile’s friend and co-worker at St. Paul Public Schools, depicted a grim picture of his experiences and understanding of being a black man living in Minnesota.
“My friend was murdered by the St. Anthony Police Department. I’m quite sure you can go through a long list of positive things that the St. Anthony Police Department has done… but the St. Anthony Police Department aren’t harassing their residents. So let’s talk about something you didn’t know,” he said. “Did you know the St. Anthony Police Department submit African American men, put their hands on the back of their car, pull their pants down and open their behinds and look in their behind for dope bags? Did you know that? It happened to me.”
A handful of people got up and left during Thompson’s boisterous and emotional account.
“You want to talk about us? We are not the problem! We are the solution! We didn’t create the racial problem! So why are you asking us to fix it? We didn’t create it! …This is not a rerun brother. It’s a new episode. Everyday there’s an African American man harassed, murdered, killed, Tased, beat, spit on, stomped on, on TV being recorded live!”
Thompson broke down in tears while covering his face and cried, “My friend lost his life for nothing. The lunchman! The lunchman! He served kids in a room that looks just like this!”
After Thompson’s statement, several people clapped and some had tears in their eyes.
In an interview with Courthouse News, Joseph Olson, an emeritus professor at Mitchell Hamline School of Law in St. Paul, says he came to the listening session because he’s watched the St. Anthony Police Department do their job over the years.
Olson has lived in his Lauderdale neighborhood for 42 years. He recalled one “bad” incident he experienced when he was pulled over by a St. Anthony police officer after running a red light.
“Instead of coming up to the door, he stops three feet behind my bumper and tries to conduct the interview through the rearview mirror,” Olson said. “He can’t see my hands. He can’t see what’s on my seat. He can’t see anything that’s in the car. And his voice has tremors of fear in it. I think to myself, ‘Oh my god, I’m going to have to control this situation because he’s not.'”
Olson said that is not a burden that should be put on citizens. He claims he was able to “control” the situation by effectively communicating with the officer, but at the same time he felt “scared.”
“I didn’t see the problem as [the police officer] so much as I thought it was a department problem,” he said.
Olson says he went to the then-St. Anthony police chief and but was essentially blown off.
Olson said he told the police chief, “You have a training problem. You have a problem in your department. If you don’t fix it. It’s going to bite you.” Castile was killed within a year of that conversation, Olson said.
“If a white professor who is affluent, intelligent, educated and aggressive can’t get through to the police chief, there’s a serious problem in St. Anthony,” he said.
In 1996, Olson founded Minnesota Concealed Carry Reform Now and also helped write Minnesota’s permit-to-carry law.
The DOJ’s review of the St. Anthony Police Department, announced in December, is expected to take two years.