About two years ago, Joe Olson was pulled over by a St. Anthony Police Department squad car for running a red light in Falcon Heights, the same Twin Cities suburb where Philando Castile was shot to death by a cop Wednesday evening. Olson put his hands on the steering wheel and waited for the officer to approach his driver’s side window when he heard a voice emanate from behind his head.
“I heard this voice with a tremor of fear in it. Actually, it scared me. Is this a scared cop?” Olson told ThinkProgress. “And he’s standing three feet behind my bumper interviewing me through the outside rear-view mirror, which is really weird, and he sounds terrified. I have a Jeep Grand Cherokee that has tinted windows, so he can’t see in the vehicle very well, he can’t see my hands at all, and he conducts the entire interview through my rear-view mirror.”
Olson said he “could’ve had somebody sitting in the back seat with a rifle” and the cop wouldn’t have been able to tell. He added that the officer’s unusual demeanor “made me afraid, and he was incompetent, and that made me more afraid.”
About six months later, Olson — a retired Minnesota law professor who played a key role in drafting Minnesota’s firearms permit law and now serves as the chairman of the Minnesota Gun Owners Civil Rights Alliance — scheduled an appointment with St. Anthony Police Department Chief John Ohl to share his concerns. (The city of Falcon Heights contracts with the St. Anthony PD for police services.) But Olson said Chief Ohl didn’t take him seriously.
“He blew off my report — wasn’t interested,” Olson recalled. “I said, ‘I think you have a training problem, and if you don’t fix it, you’re going to have a bigger problem.’”
I said, ‘I think you have a training problem, and if you don’t fix it, you’re going to have a bigger problem’
In the wake of Castile’s death, the St. Anthony PD does indeed have a huge problem — one that Chief Ohl refused to see, right up until his retirement from the force from late May.
In an interview at the time of his retirement, Ohl downplayed the notion that police violence is a serious national problem, and blamed the media for manufacturing that impression.
“National news media and local media are making it tough to recruit high-quality cops,” Ohl told Twin Cities reporter Bill Lindeke. “From 33 years now I’ve been reflecting on this, and it is the topic of the day… But nothing’s significantly broken in law enforcement right now. We are better trained, better selected, better educated, held to more standards, more accountable, and with better policies than ever before in U.S. history. We are moving forward constantly. What more are we supposed to do?”
Olson argues that Chief Ohl could’ve started by training St. Anthony cops how to properly handle traffic stops. For example, officers are typically instructed to stand just behind the driver’s left shoulder where the driver’s door opens, allowing them to see both of the driver’s hands. According to what Castile’s girlfriend said during a Facebook live broadcast of the shooting’s immediate aftermath, Castile was shot while he was reaching for his license, shortly after he informed the officer he was lawfully carrying a firearm. It’s unclear whether the cop who shot him ever saw his gun, but in the video, the officer has his gun drawn and can be heard saying, “I told him not to reach for it! I told him to get his hand out.” While her boyfriend bled out next to her, Castile’s girlfriend replied by saying he was merely reaching for his license.
Referring to an officer’s typical position during a traffic spot, Andrew Rothman, another member of the Minnesota Gun Owners Civil Rights Alliance, told ThinkProgress that “from the video, it doesn’t look like that’s what happened in this case.” While the Facebook live video starts after the shooting, Rothman noted that the footage suggests the cop who shot Castile was positioned in front of him, which might’ve obscured his perspective when Castile reached toward his hip.
Olson, who served in the Falcon Heights fire department, said he also has reason to believe that Falcon Heights officials place great value on the revenue generated by traffic citations. The city of 5,491 spent nearly $700,000 on policing last year. Across the three communities the St. Anthony PD serves, officers issued 2,410 citations, but only made 833 arrests, of which 661 were traffic-related. Small towns using traffic citations as a revenue stream is far from unprecedented in America.
“I was on the fire department in Falcon Heights when they got the [St. Anthony] police contract, and the chief promised the city council that he would double their ticket revenue,” Olson said, adding that this happened before Ohl’s tenure. “They essentially run a slot machine where the incident happened. They’re always out there looking for anything — write a ticket and collect a buck.”
The St. Anthony PD’s 2015 annual report acknowledges that “another way in which the patrol division contributes to our goal of suppressing and deterring criminal activities is though our active enforcement of traffic laws.”
“The high visibility that traffic enforcement brings serves as a deterrent to would-be criminals looking for a place in which to commit their crimes,” it adds.
Told of the media-blaming comments Ohl made to the media upon his retirement just six weeks ago, Olson reiterated that he wishes the former chief would’ve taken his warning seriously.
“They all know what to say, but actions speak louder than words,” he said.