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Falcon Heights convening conversation on community values
Part of city’s response to killing of Philando Castile
As Falcon Heights continues to examine the role of law enforcement in the suburb following the police killing of Philando Castile last July, the city is holding an event to outline its community values.
The first of five community conversations planned by the Falcon Heights Inclusion and Policing Task Force is Thursday, Feb. 16, at Falcon Heights Elementary School.
There, residents, business owners and people who work in Falcon Heights and anyone else will have an opportunity to discuss what they see as the “values of our community.”
This is not the first time a listening session or community event has been held in relation to the death of Castile, a 32-year-old black man who was shot by a St. Anthony police officer during a traffic stop on Larpenteur Avenue near the Minnesota State Fairgrounds. Falcon Heights contracts with St. Anthony Village for police service; the officer who shot Castile has been charged with second-degree manslaughter and awaits trial.
Both Falcon Heights and the U.S. Department of Justice, as a part of its ongoing review of the St. Anthony Police Department have held several, similar events.
However, Falcon Heights City Administrator Sack Thongvanh said this conversation will be different, more intense and more focused.
“This will be a little bit more of a meat on the bone meeting,” Thongvanh said. “[It’s] on how we’re going to be involved and how we’re going to do it.”
The Inclusion and Policing Task Force was convened in December, tasked with making recommendations about policing in Falcon Heights to the city council by May. Recommendations could include how police should conduct traffic stops and if the city should continue to contract with St. Anthony.
Opportunity for all to be heard
Task Force co-chair Melanie Leehy echoed Thongvanh, saying the Feb. 16 conversation will be different from previous events, in that more people will have an opportunity to be heard.
“What can tend to happen with listening sessions is it’s an opportunity to listen to just a few people’s perspectives,” Leehy said, noting it can be intimidating for some to speak in front of a large crowd. “With this setting, it will allow everybody who comes to be involved in the dialogue.”
The community values conversation will break attendees into small groups, with 10-12 people per group, Thongvanh said. Leehy said a record of each conversation will be kept, with trained facilitators running the event.
Thongvanh said he hopes people who might not have spoken at previous events show up and participate Feb. 16.
“Other listening sessions were very one-sided, and we want to be sensitive to everyone who has an opinion,” he said, referencing the almost uniformly critical comments about St. Anthony police, and police officers in general, at other events.
Listening session fatigue
People critical of the police have said they’ve been to enough listening sessions, as stated by many at a series of DOJ events in January. They say they want to see more decisive action from Falcon Heights. They accuse St. Anthony officers, among other things, of racial profiling.
“These people have been at listening sessions; they’ve had representatives at city council meetings for seven months,” said Paula Mielke, a member of Falcon Heights Can Do Better, the group that recommended the formation of the policing task force last year.
Mielke said she was “incredulous” that people would be expected to show up to five more meetings.
“People have poured their guts out,” she said. “And now we’re asking you to come and tell us how you’d like policing to be in our city, really?”
Mielke said at a minimum, as she’s called for previously, that Falcon Heights should announce it’s ending its contract with the St. Anthony Police Department. She added the city could then solicit the public’s help in writing a new contract. “Maybe people would come,” she said.
Thongvanh and Leehy said they’re aware people may be suffering from listening session fatigue, but both said they think the city is on the right track, with Leehy noting the task force process is a means towards sustainable change.
“We want this to be a grassroots opportunity for change,” she said. Leehy noted the two city officials on the task force, Mayor Peter Lindstrom and council member Randy Gustafson, are not voting members, so recommendations to the council would ultimately come from the private citizens on the task force, which intends to listen to the public.
“The driving force [of this] is not from the city officials,” she said.
The first Falcon Heights Inclusion and Policing Task Force community conversation on identifying community values is Thursday, Feb. 16, from 6:30-8:30 p.m. at Falcon Heights Elementary School, 1393 Garden Ave. W. in Falcon Heights.
Future conversations are scheduled for March 2, April 3 and May 1. The fifth and final event is slated for May or June, after the task force has made its recommendations to the Falcon Heights City Council. Organizers urge people to attend as many conversations as they can.
Mike Munzenrider can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 651-748-7813. Follow him on Twitter @mmunzenrider.