The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

What the police officer who shot Philando Castile said about the shooting

The officer who fatally shot Philando Castile during a traffic stop last year fired a volley of bullets within seconds of learning the driver was armed. (Video: YouTube/Ramsey County)

The police officer said he had no choice.

Hours earlier, Jeronimo Yanez had fatally shot Philando Castile, who worked for a nearby school, during a traffic stop outside the Twin Cities. The officer said Castile kept moving even though he told him not to, reaching down and putting his hand on something.

“I thought he had a gun in his hand,” Yanez said later. Yanez feared for his life, he said, and the lives of his partner as well as the two passengers in the car: Castile’s girlfriend and her young daughter. Recounting the shooting the following day, Yanez said: “I thought I was gonna die. And, I was scared because, I didn’t know if he was gonna, I didn’t know what he was gonna do.”

So he opened fire.

Video footage shows Minn. traffic stop that ended with Philando Castile’s death

The encounter on Larpenteur Avenue in Falcon Heights, Minn., escalated to gunfire in a matter of seconds, and moments later, the scene began spreading worldwide, broadcast live on Facebook by Castile’s girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, while she was sitting next to him in the car. She said Castile had been shot while reaching for his ID after letting the officer know he had a firearm.

The following day, Yanez — then a 28-year-old officer with the St. Anthony, Minn., police department — sat down to be interviewed by state investigators. Castile’s name dominated news headlines, his death in July 2016 the latest in a string of fatal police encounters that prompted outrage nationwide. Reynolds’s footage from inside Castile’s Oldsmobile, unlike any other account of a police shooting, was everywhere.

Yanez would be charged with manslaughter, with demonstrators decrying his actions, the state’s governor questioning the shooting and a county prosecutor assailing him. A jury acquitted him last week of manslaughter and two counts of endangering Reynolds and her 4-year-old daughter. The same day, St. Anthony officials said Yanez would not return to their police force.

For most of the public, the only account they knew of the shooting was from Reynolds’s video, streamed live from the Oldsmobile while blood soaked into Castile’s white T-shirt. That changed Tuesday. Four days after Yanez was acquitted and nearly a year after Castile was killed, state officials released a police dashboard camera recording of the shooting itself, along with other recordings and scores of transcripts, reports and other documents.

The dash-cam video was shown during Yanez’s trial and its contents described in court documents, but the recording itself was not widely shared until Tuesday, when it rippled across social media, joining a catalogue of grim videos documenting police shootings from Cincinnati to North Charleston, S.C. The recordings and documents were released Tuesday “as they were presented in court, but without the context that we were able to provide at trial,” said a spokesman for Ramsey County Attorney John J. Choi, who prosecuted the case.

Minn. officer acquitted in shooting of Philando Castile during traffic stop, dismissed from police force

Earl Gray, an attorney for Yanez, did not respond to requests for comment regarding the acquittal last week or the evidence released Tuesday. After Yanez was acquitted, Gray told reporters outside the courthouse that “the case should’ve never been charged.”

This new video showed how quickly the encounter escalated, how fast it shifted when Castile told the officer about the gun he was legally carrying. Along with the footage of the shooting itself, officials also released another account of the shooting: a transcript of Yanez’s interview with two special agents from the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, the state agency investigating the shooting.

Like the dash-cam footage, Yanez’s comments during his interview were previously revealed in court documents and during his trial, but not widely seen. (According to the Minneapolis Star Tribune, an audio recording of Yanez’s full interview with investigators was never played during the trial, and the judge denied a request from jurors to review a transcript during deliberations.) They capture a young officer who says he saw a gun and apparently connected his decision to open fire with the smell of marijuana in the car.

Thousands dead, few prosecuted

On July 7, about 16 hours after fatally shooting Castile, Yanez sat down with the investigators. Yanez told them he stopped Castile not for a broken taillight, as he told the driver when the stop began, but because he thought Castile matched the description of a suspect in a robbery days earlier.

The first thing he noticed when approaching the car, Yanez told investigators, was the smell of burning marijuana, according to the verbatim transcripts of the interview.

“I told them the reason for the traffic stop and then I wasn’t going to say anything about the marijuana yet because I didn’t want to scare him or have him react in a defensive manner. Um, he didn’t make direct eye contact with me and it was very hard to hear him, Uh he was almost mumbling when he was talking to me. And he was directing his voice away from me as he was speaking and as I was asking questions. Uh he kept his, hands in view and then I uh I believe I asked for, his license and insurance. And then I believe they told me, they asked for the reason for my traffic stop. And I told ’em the reason was the only, I think I told ’em the only rea, the reason I pulled you over is because the only active brake light working was the rear passenger side brake light.”

The traffic stop quickly shifted, Yanez said, when Castile told him he had a gun. Outside the car, Yanez could be seen sliding his hand onto his gun. According to Yanez, at the same time, he saw Castile “reaching down between his right leg, his right thigh area and the center console.”

The officer told investigators later that the marijuana smell remained in his mind, saying that because of the odor, he didn’t know whether Castile had the gun “for protection” from a drug dealer or people trying to rob him.

The dash-cam video showed what happened next. Yanez told Castile not to reach for the gun, and Castile said he was not reaching for it, which Reynolds echoed. Yanez yelled: “Don’t pull it out!” Yanez drew his gun, pushed it inside the car and fired seven shots.

‘He knew the kids and they loved him’: Castile was an adored school cafeteria manager

Reynolds’s Facebook Live video began moments later, and the dash-cam continued recording from inside Yanez’s car. Neither video captured Castile’s movements inside his car in the moments before he was shot.

According to Yanez, before he opened fire, Castile kept moving his hand. From the transcript:

Yanez: “I, believe I continued to tell him don’t do it or don’t reach for it and he still continued to move. And, it appeared to me that be had no regard to what I was saying. He didn’t care what I was saying. He still reached down. … And, at that point I, was scared and I was, in fear for my life and my partner’s life. And for the little girl in the back and the front seat passenger and he dropped his hand down and, can’t remember what I was telling him but I was telling something as his hand went down I think. And, he put his hand around something. And his hand made like a C shape type um type shape and it appeared to me that he was wrapping something around his fingers and almost like if I were to put my uh hand around my gun like putting my hand up to the butt of the gun.”
Investigator: “Okay.”
Yanez: “That’s what it appeared to me.”

Yanez then said he kept seeing Castile moving his hand and “saw something in his hand,” adding that the driver “had no regard for what I was saying. Didn’t follow my direction.”

In the video recordings, Reynolds can be heard disputing this from inside the car, saying that Castile, who had been asked for his license when the stop began, was reaching for his ID, not for a gun.

Yanez, though, said he believed Castile had grabbed a gun:

“I know he had an object and it was dark. And he was pulling it out with his right hand. And as he was pulling it out I, a million things started going through my head. And I thought I was gonna die. And, I was scared because, I didn’t know if he was gonna, I didn’t know what he was gonna do. He just had somethin’ uh his hands and he, the first words that he said to me were, some of the first words he said is that he had a gun. And I thought he was reaching for the gun. I thought he had the gun in his hand, in his right hand. And I thought he had it enough to where all he had to do is just pull it out, point it at me, move his trigger finger down on the trigger and let off rounds. And I had no other option than, to take out my firearm and, and I shot. Um I shot him.”

Yanez said he did not remember the first two shots, but he remembered the last two. He also said he tried directing his gunfire “down as best I could,” to avoid Reynolds and her daughter. In his interview, Yanez said again moments later that he thought he saw Castile’s gun in his hands, and when asked about this later, Yanez said it looked to him like Yanez’s hand was “wrapped around the butt of a gun.”

“I just knew it was dark and I could barely see and I thought it was a firearm and I thought he was gonna shoot and kill me and I thought he was gonna shoot and kill my partner right after that.”

In describing his decision to fire, Yanez brought up the marijuana again, saying the smell was on his mind when he began shooting:

“As that was happening as he was pulling at, out his hand I thought, I was gonna die and I thought if he’s, if he has the, the guts and the audacity to smoke marijuana in front of the five year old girl and risk her lungs and risk her life by giving her secondhand smoke and the front seat passenger doing the same thing then what, what care does he give about me. And, I let off the rounds and then after the rounds were off, the little girls was screaming.”

Yanez said he did not remember seeing anything in Castile’s hands after the gunshots. According to court records, officers and paramedics removed a .40-caliber semiautomatic handgun from Castile’s pocket once he was taken out of the car; the gun had a loaded magazine but no round chambered.

Looking at officer’s claims about safety concerns regarding marijuana

Later, Yanez was asked again about what he perceived as Castile’s “general disposition.” The officer said Castile’s body language “appeared defensive to me,” and then described the interaction this way:

“As I was giving him direction about what to give me and to keep his hand in view um like I said I felt that he had no regard to what I was saying. He didn’t care what I was saying. He didn’t want to follow what I was saying so he just wanted to do what he wanted to do.”

Yanez was also asked later about his previous experience with drivers who say they have firearms, and he said that drivers “always tell me that when they’re gonna reach for something and where their wallets at or what they’re gonna do.”

In the dash-cam video, moments after he is mortally wounded, Castile can be heard saying: “I wasn’t reaching.” It is the last time he is heard speaking on the dash-cam recording.

Yanez was model student, educator says

Larry R. Rogers Jr., an attorney for Reynolds, said that based on the dash-cam video, “it is clear that Officer Jeronimo Yanez was not in control, was nervous and acted in a reckless, willful and wanton fashion.”

“We are exploring our next steps in light of the compelling evidence of Officer Yanez’s wrongdoing that led to this tragedy,” Rogers said in a statement.

Experts said that while videos of police shootings are disturbing, the legal standard is still whether an officer’s actions were “objectively reasonable” given the situation they were facing, according to Graham v. Connor, the 1989 U.S. Supreme Court case.

“Video may give us some insight on [shootings], but it doesn’t change the fundamental standard by which police actions using force are judged,” David A. Harris, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh and an expert in police uses of force, said this week.

The Minnesota police officer who fatally shot Philando Castile during a traffic stop was acquitted on all charges by a jury on June 16. (Video: Victoria Walker/The Washington Post)

Videos are also inevitably incomplete, because they are unlikely to capture the entire incident, he said.

“The officer’s judged by what he or she reasonably sees or perceives,” said David J. MacMain, an attorney and former Pennsylvania State Trooper who represents law enforcement officers in civil cases. “It’s the perception of the officer at the time.”

Police in the United States fatally shot 963 people last year, essentially unchanged from the previous year, according to a Washington Post database tracking the shootings. Most of those shot and killed last year were armed, the database showed.

Gun owners are outraged by the Philando Castile case. The NRA is silent.

The dash-cam video from Castile’s death last year in Minnesota, along with other evidence released Tuesday and another video made public Wednesday, provided additional glimpses of what happened outside of the Facebook Live video.

Not long after the gunshots, Officer Joseph Kauser, Yanez’s partner at the time, is seen approaching the car’s rear passenger door and picking up Reynolds’s 4-year-old daughter, who was sitting behind Reynolds in the back seat. Photographs from inside the car, presented later as evidence, showed that one bullet passed through Castile’s seat and struck the back seat, inches from where the girl was sitting in her car seat.

Yanez can be heard yelling out a series of expletives, even as Reynolds, speaking into her phone, was saying: “They killed my boyfriend. He’s licensed … he is licensed to carry.”

Inside Castile’s wallet were his license, credit cards and his permit to carry a pistol, according to a photo included in the evidence collection.

About five minutes after he was shot, Castile was pulled from the car and laid down on the street, where officers began to administer first aid.

Another video, this one apparently recorded inside another police car, showed a different angle of the shooting’s aftermath. Reynolds was placed in the car along with her daughter, and Reynolds, still handcuffed, described what happened into her phone. Reynolds’s voice grew increasingly emotional, her anger apparent.

“It’s okay, I’m right here with you,” the 4-year-old said to Reynolds. The 4-year-old began crying, and Reynolds tried to console her. Minutes later, Reynolds yelled while having an issue with her phone, and the 4-year-old again tried to console her.

“Mom, please stop saying cuss words and screaming ’cause I don’t want you to get shooted,” she said. Reynolds gave her a kiss, and the girl added: “I could keep you safe.”

Further reading:

The Washington Post’s database of fatal police shootings in 2017

For Diamond Reynolds, trying to move past 10 tragic minutes of video

Protocol for reducing police shootings draws backlash from unions, chiefs group