Did gun rights activist flag problem with St. Anthony police?

The facts still need to be established in the tragic shooting death of Philando Castile Wednesday night by a St. Anthony police officer in Falcon Heights. Reports say Castile, a black man, was evidently shot after being asked to produce his driver license and vehicle registration. Somewhere in the process Castile apparently informed the officer he had a conceal carry license and a firearm. What went wrong next remains under investigation.crowd

But was the St. Anthony Police Department advised to rethink its policy of policing through traffic pullovers a year and a half before this incident by a well-respected lawyer and gun rights activist who had it happen to him? That’s the unnerving story line behind a post on the liberal Think Progress website.

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 Minneapolis 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.”

Joe Olson has been called the “godfather of Minnesota gun rights.” The Roseville lawyer helped write the Minnesota Citizens Personal Protection Act in 2003, the conceal carry law that’s resulted in permits for some 230,000 state residents.

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.’”

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.

It’s critical to emphasize that the facts of what led up to Castile’s fatal shooting still remain to be determined. But Olson apparently flagged a potential problem well in advance.

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.