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Two years after Philando Castile’s death, programs aim to transform relations between police, residents

Protestors carry a banner depicting Philando Castile on June 16, 2017, in St. Paul, Minn. Protests erupted in the state after Officer Jeronimo Yanez was acquitted of all charges in the shooting death of Castile. Several programs have been created to help improve the lives of low-income residents in the Twin Cities region. (Stephen Maturen/Getty Images)

ROSEVILLE, Minn. — The lights from the police car flash blue and red against the white minivan. An African American family of six sits inside the Nissan Quest in this first-ring suburb of St. Paul on a warm June evening. Mom’s at the wheel, grandma’s in the passenger seat, and four children, including a boy in a wheelchair, fill in the two rows in the back. The car tells a story of poverty: Plastic covers a broken window; rust lines the wheel wells.

Officer Erin Reski pulled the vehicle over for a burned-out taillight, a problem similar to the one that led an officer to stop Philando Castile in the Twin Cities two years ago. That incident rapidly escalated and ended with Castile fatally shot.

This situation ends very differently.

Reski walks back to the minivan after running a check of the driver’s license, insurance and registration. She hands over a sheet of paper and offers a brief explanation. The response is swift and emphatic.

“Oh, thank you!” the driver says.

“God bless you,” the grandmother says.

Scenes like this have been taking place across the Twin Cities thanks to the Lights On program, believed to be the first of its kind in the country. Instead of writing tickets for minor equipment problems, police officers are authorized to issue $50 coupons so motorists can have those problems fixed at area auto shops. Twenty participating police departments have given out approximately 660 coupons in a little more than a year.

The program is among several changes after Castile’s death that are aimed at improving the lives of low-income residents here and transforming how police interact with them. Local politicians running on police reform platforms have been winning elections, and initiatives that funnel financial assistance to low-income and minority youths have been launched in Castile’s name. While some see the efforts as a positive shift, others doubt that long-term change is possible.

But for motorists such as Sandy Patterson, another African American resident who was pulled over for a burned-out headlight in January, the small gesture of being offered a coupon makes a big difference.

“I was relieved that I was getting a voucher to purchase a service that could’ve been quite expensive,” she said. “I had an overwhelming feeling of decreased anxiety because of the whole way the communication went, with somebody helping out versus giving a ticket.”

Lights On was created by MicroGrants, a nonprofit organization that aims to “promote and support economic self-sufficiency” for low-income people and provides money to individuals for education, small business and transportation needs. MicroGrants began the program in 2017 with $3,000 and has since collected $60,000 in donations. Lights On has been replicated in Iowa City in neighboring Iowa and is slated for other locales in the Midwest.

“Maybe we’re building a bridge,” Reski, the officer, said. “And it might change people’s response to how they perceive us, especially in the climate we’re in right now.”

Lights On traces its roots to a very different stop that occurred a mile south of here, in the tiny suburb of Falcon Heights.

On July 6, 2016, Castile was driving with his girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, and her 4-year-old daughter when he was pulled over. Officers noted a broken taillight but told dispatchers they were going to question the occupants about an unsolved robbery.

Castile had a driver’s license and insurance, with only minor traffic violations on his record. The stop ended with an officer, Jeronimo Yanez, shooting Castile several times at close range after Castile disclosed that there was a gun in the car. Yanez told investigators that he feared Castile, who owned the gun legally, was planning to brandish the weapon when he was reaching for his wallet. Yanez was charged with manslaughter and endangering Reynolds and her daughter but was acquitted of all charges.

Castile’s death captured the nation’s attention largely because Reynolds broadcast the shooting’s aftermath on Facebook Live. It sparked outrage and protests, similar to other police shootings of young black men.

Castile’s death has continued to fuel a robust Black Lives Matter chapter in the area and inspire changes small and large to address underlying problems in policing and race relations.

“This community here in the Twin Cities has been very intentional about the many ways we can go about obtaining justice,” said Danny Givens, 40, a St. Paul pastor who is the clergy liaison to the local Black Lives Matter chapter. “To see the community begin to respond in a number of different ways has been a beautiful picture in the wake of this travesty.”

In St. Paul, the majority-white capital city where Castile grew up, voters last November elected Melvin Carter — the first black mayor in its 160-year history, who ran on issues of police reform and minority inclusion. In Falcon Heights, the predominantly white suburb where Castile was killed, voters recently elected Melanie Leehy the first black council member. She, too, had made those issues central to her campaign.

Falcon Heights, which does not have its own police department, ended its contract with the St. Anthony Police Department, which black motorists accused of racially profiling them in traffic stops.

And there have been more granular changes, too. At Central High School, Castile’s alma mater, an African American student receives an alumni-funded $5,000 scholarship in Castile’s name each year. And in the St. Paul Public Schools, where Castile worked for 14 years in various cafeteria jobs, all children with lunch fines had them erased, thanks to a charity set up in his name. The fund also pays off lunch fines for children in Minneapolis.

“The fact that we’ve had our hearts ripped out has created a situation that many of our residents aren’t willing to just take sitting down,” said Carter, the mayor.

But some are not convinced that the positive changes will be permanent.

“You can fix somebody’s taillight, but is that really addressing the core issue of police terror and murder and brutalization?” said Givens, the Black Lives Matter liaison.

Givens has a complicated history with police. At 19, he shot an off-duty sheriff’s deputy during a botched robbery. The deputy, Art Blakey, forgave Givens after the young man found God in prison and earned a college degree while there.

“I feel there’s a lot that can be learned from the ways he carried himself during those types of incidents,” Givens said. “I don’t agree with the culture of policing that’s happening today in predominantly black or brown communities.”

Kevin Dyer, a white retired executive with Tyson Foods, has come to the same conclusion. Dyer closely watched the Castile news from his home in St. Cloud, a city 75 miles northwest of St. Paul.

“For white society as a whole, it was a ‘Holy crap, they’re right’ moment,” he said. “These guys really are getting shot for no good reason. Any black man in America has a right to fear for his life when dealing with police.”

Dyer made a similar statement in a note he posted to a message board at the Minneapolis Institute of Art. The museum recently opened an exhibit inspired by Castile’s death; Philando Castile’s mother, Valerie Castile, presented the works given to her by various strangers.

“The art helped me deal with my son’s death, and God told me to share it with the world,” she said.

“Art and Healing: In the Moment” opened in June, drawing hundreds of guests, including Carter and Glenda Hatchett, the TV judge who served as the family’s lawyer. (The family settled a wrongful-death lawsuit with St. Anthony Village for $3 million, and Reynolds won an $800,000 settlement.)

Valerie Castile is working to find a site near the location of her son’s death for a permanent memorial. Until then, strangers and friends continue to gather at the site, leaving flowers, teddy bears and artwork. A three-sided wooden monument at the location displays a quote from Valerie: “Son, you never talked much here, but you’re making a lot of noise now, baby!”