Back to the Jan-Feb 2019 issue

Falcon Heights Reinforces Inclusive Values

By Andrew Tellijohn

On July 5, 2016, Mayor Peter Lindstrom says the most controversial issue facing the city of Falcon Heights was whether to build a sidewalk to an elementary school.

“That’s an important issue for the people that live on that road,” Lindstrom says. “But it’s not an issue that would make the New York Times or the Star Tribune or even the Roseville Review.”

A day later, however, the city of 5,500 made national news when Philando Castile, a 32-year-old African American, was shot and killed by a police officer during a traffic stop.

The incident, much of which was captured in a cell phone video taken by Castile’s girlfriend, drew national attention. It called into question for residents and visitors whether they were safe or welcome in the city.

Lindstrom and other Falcon Heights staff and elected officials say they had always considered the city welcoming. They wanted to act quickly and decisively to ensure that they handled the incident properly and that, going forward, those questions were answered affirmatively.

“Here we were on the front page of the New York Times,” Lindstrom says. “The question was, this international incident just happened, how do we respond? I knew for sure that it was bigger than me and anyone on the Council. We needed help to deal with this.”

Task force created

So, right away, the City Council established the Task Force on Policing and Inclusion, made up of a diverse group of 11 residents and nonresidents, with a mission to “articulate, affirm, and operationalize our values as a community to be an inclusive and welcoming environment for residents and guests of Falcon Heights, with an emphasis on policing values, policies, and procedures.”

The city also began garnering outside expertise to help run a series of community conversations. The city worked with the Minnesota Bureau of Mediation Services’ Office of Collaboration and Dispute Resolution, the Center for Integrative Leadership at the University of Minnesota, the Dispute Resolution Institute at Mitchell Hamline School of Law, and Metropolitan State University. Funding for a portion of the work came from the American Arbitration Association’s International Centre for Dispute Resolution Foundation.

Falcon Heights won a League of Minnesota Cities 2018 City of Excellence Award for the initiative.

Community conversations

The Policing and Inclusion Task Force held a series of five community conversations that drew participation from more than 180 people. They asked people what values they think the community should have and what needs to change, and they opened the floor to everybody who attended, whether or not they lived in Falcon Heights.

Based on what they heard at the meetings, the task force designed recommendations that they brought back to the community for discussion and revision.

Melanie Leehy, who has since been elected to the Falcon Heights City Council, was already chairing a community engagement commission when she became the citizen co-chair of the city’s task force, along with Councilmember Randy Gustafson.

Her goal—both while sitting on those groups and dur-ing previous runs for City Council—was to bring the community together.

“When I ran the first two times, it was for the same reason I ran the third time, and that was to increase the connectedness in the community,” Leehy says. “People thought, ‘She’s got to have a better reason than strengthening the community; no one runs for that purpose.’ After Philando’s death, that’s what people wanted. They realized that was a need we had in the city, so that we’re prepared in good times and bad.”

The task force became a means for strengthening the city’s status as a welcoming city. “Being elected has really helped because I have a lot of say-so in getting things done and pushing for that,” Leehy says. “We want to make sure the recommendations put forth by the task force get implemented.”

Changes followed

As a result of the community discussions, Falcon Heights has made some changes.

First, even as the community conversations were taking place, the tone of the discussions improved. Instead of vengeance, facilitators noted that participants’ thought processes shifted to making sure the community felt inclusive and determining what role they played in making that happen.

Second, the city’s policing contract ended, leaving it to find a new partner. Informed by the task force recommendations on what they’d like to see from such a partner, city officials contracted with the Ramsey County Sheriff ’s Office.

Mayor Lindstrom says it was helpful having the task force’s recommendations during the negotiations, so both sides could be on the same page.

The county’s “character-based hiring” process, he adds, was important. That means Ramsey County believes it can train someone to drive fast or shoot straight, but probably can’t teach someone to have the character needed to become an effective officer.

Finally, the city has embarked on several initiatives aimed at creating a more welcoming and inclusive community, as well as improving police-community relations. An important part of the effort is training for city staff, elected officials, and interested residents on issues such as racial equity and implicit bias.

In addition, Falcon Heights has expanded the events it holds, with an emphasis on being more inclusive. Here are few examples of what city leaders have done:

  • Established Restoration and Unity Day, a celebratory event in early July that serves as a commemoration of life for Philando Castile.
  • Added emphasis to Spring Together, an event held in May at Curtis Field, a park near both affordable and traditional housing. This event allows residents with different backgrounds to get to know each other and sample foods from different cultures that make up the city.
  • Combined an ice cream social with Hot Dog with a Deputy, which encourages residents and visitors to speak with a police officer.
  • Conducted Survey and Services on the Spot, during which residents and visitors willing to answer a few questions about their thoughts on Falcon Heights received a coupon to dine at a nearby food truck and a list of services for jobs and seniors.
  • Started Rec on the Go to encourage community engagement and involvement. The city provides three free recreation programs to the under-engaged community to minimize financial barriers to participation.

After attending Restoration and Unity Days in 2017, Lindstrom says, “It was one of the best days I’ve had as mayor. It was a real celebratory atmosphere. It was a beautiful summer evening with people who earlier in the year or the year previous had been quite critical of the city’s response.”

City Administrator Sack Thongvanh says these changes and events “would not have been possible without the commitment of the residents, community leaders, volunteers, partnerships with other agencies, a dedicated city staff, and the hundreds to thousands of hours invested in cultivating a caring community.”

Working toward lasting change

Falcon Heights has been able to find some positive outcomes from a tragic event. Task force co-chairs and Councilmembers Gustafson and Leehy both hope the city’s response can serve as an example to other communities on how to handle difficult situations.

“The community wanted action and so this was in order,” Gustafson says. “You can’t have a bunker mentality. We wanted to verify and make certain our community values were geared toward being inclusive.”

Leehy says the community was caught off guard by the severity of the shooting incident but has responded in a positive manner that other cities may learn from.

“I didn’t want to do something cookie cutter. We needed to do something that was going to bring a shift to our region and a shift to our nation for how we handle tragedies that shake us to the core,” Leehy says.

“We were hit with a mighty blow on July 6, 2016,” Lindstrom says. “I’m really proud of our residents. I really feel like our residents rose to the occasion. We didn’t bury our heads in the sand. We stepped forward and tackled these vexing issues. I think we’re a stronger community because of it.”

Andrew Tellijohn is a freelance writer based in Richfield, Minnesota.