MINNEAPOLIS » A lawyer for a Minnesota police officer who shot a black driver said today his client thought he was approaching someone who resembled a suspect in an armed robbery — an assertion that could be pivotal as investigators review how the deadly traffic stop went down.
But outside observers say that claim raises some questions. Among them: If the officer suspected Philando Castile in the robbery, why didn’t he treat the traffic stop as a potentially dangerous situation?
“There’s something inconsistent about what happened here,” said Albert Goins, a Minnesota attorney who is not representing anyone in the case. “That inconsistency has got to be answered.”
St. Anthony police officer Jeronimo Yanez shot Castile on Wednesday in the St. Paul suburb of Falcon Heights. Castile’s death — and another police shooting a day earlier in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, that also left a black man dead — prompted protests around the country, including in Dallas where five officers were killed and several more were wounded Thursday.
Protesters have been camped out in front of the Minnesota governor’s mansion for days, demanding justice, while dozens were arrested after a weekend march shut down a 6-mile stretch of freeway.
As the investigation into Castile’s death proceeds, those following the case are left to sort through conflicting accounts and questions about how Yanez and fellow officer Joseph Kauser handled the traffic stop. Authorities released no new information about the case today, and wouldn’t answer questions about the traffic stop, citing data privacy laws.
Yanez’s attorney, Thomas Kelly, said today that his client thought Castile looked like “a possible match” for a suspect in a recent armed robbery.
“Mr. Castile caught the attention of my client,” Kelly said. “That was one of the reasons he pulled him over.”
Castile’s girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, was in the car along with her 4-year-old daughter, and Reynolds streamed the gruesome aftermath of the shooting live on Facebook. In the video, Reynolds describes being pulled over for a “busted tail light.”
Larry Rogers, a Chicago attorney representing Reynolds and her daughter, said today that based on what he has seen so far, there does not seem to be “any legitimate reason” for the traffic stop.
Reynolds told reporters last week that her boyfriend was shot as he told the officer he had a permit to carry and was currently armed while he reached for his wallet. She said Castile was having difficulty getting to his wallet and that his gun was in a holster in his pants.
Kelly told the AP on Saturday that a broken tail light wasn’t the only reason for the stop. He said Yanez, who is Latino, was reacting to seeing the gun, not to Castile’s race. He did not elaborate.
Goins, an attorney who assisted the Castile family after the shooting but is not representing anyone in the case, said if Yanez and Kauser believed they could be stopping the robbery suspect, they should have approached the car differently: using lights, sirens and a public address system while they took cover and ordered the occupants to the ground at gunpoint.
“There’s a procedure every police officer I’ve ever run across knows about, called a felony stop,” Goins said. “They take people out of the car before they start to ask questions. They want to be cautious because the circumstances merit caution.”
Court records reviewed by the AP show Castile had no felony record but had been pulled over dozens of times since 2002 for a variety of minor offenses including speeding, driving without a muffler and not wearing a seat belt.
Yanez has four years of experience as an officer in St. Anthony, a predominantly white St. Paul suburb whose department also patrols Falcon Heights.
The day before the shooting, state police released a bulletin seeking the public’s help finding a pair of black men who held up a convenience store less than 2 miles down the same street from where Yanez stopped Castile, in an area also patrolled by St. Anthony police. The men stole cash and cigarettes at gunpoint.
The alert for the July 2 robbery described one of the suspects as having longer dreadlocks and possibly a moustache, and the second as having shoulder-length dreadlocks, a small moustache and some hair on his chin.
Castile had a goatee, which is visible in the video his girlfriend streamed, and dreadlocks.
In Reynolds’ video, a clearly distraught person who appears to be a police officer stands at the car’s window, tells Reynolds to keep her hands up and says: “I told him not to reach for it. I told him to get his hand out.”
“You shot four bullets into him, sir. He was just getting his license and registration, sir,” Reynolds calmly responds.
In an interview today on MSNBC-TV, Reynolds said she decided to pull out her cellphone and hit record because she knew “it was going to be law enforcement’s word over mine.”
“I’m a nobody. And I felt by the police doing what they did, the only way to get my word justified … was to post the video,” she said.
Yanez and Kauser have been placed on leave, as is standard practice when officers are involved in shootings. Kauser’s race hasn’t been released.