Jeronimo Yanez, a suburban St. Paul police officer who killed Philando Castile, a black driver, reacted to the man’s gun, not his race, Yanez’s attorney said Saturday, giving the most detailed account so far of why the officer drew his own weapon during the traffic stop on Wednesday.
Diamond Reynolds, a passenger in the vehicle who streamed the immediate aftermath of the shooting live on social media, has said he was shot several times while reaching for his wallet, after telling the officer he had a gun and a permit to carry it.
Yanez, a police officer in the city of St. Anthony, Minn., was reacting to “the presence of that gun and the display of that gun” when he opened fire on Castile, Minneapolis attorney Thomas Kelly told The Associated Press. He declined to elaborate on how Castile displayed the weapon or what led up to the deadly traffic stop.
Yanez “was reacting to the actions of the driver,” Kelly said. “This had nothing to do with race. This had everything to do with the presence of a gun.”
Less than 24 hours after the shooting, Gov. Mark Dayton declared that police likely wouldn’t have fired had Castile been white. Dayton later said he stood by his statement even though it angered some in law enforcement.
Philip Smith, president and founder of the National African American Gun Association, said whether or not a black man is legally in possession of a gun might not matter in the tense moments of an encounter with an officer.
“They’re not getting any kind of the benefit of the doubt,” Smith said.
Kelly said Yanez, who is Latino, is “overcome with sadness” over Castile’s shooting Wednesday in the St. Paul suburb of Falcon Heights, a mostly white community of 5,000 that is served primarily by the nearby St. Anthony Police Department.
Yanez and an officer who was with him, Joseph Kauser, were put on administrative leave, as is standard, authorities said. Both are four-year veterans of the St. Anthony force.
Yanez’s position with the 23-member department was his first in law enforcement, after jobs in security and contract immigration compliance work, Kelly said. The 28-year-old has a wife and child, and graduated from Minnesota State University Mankato with a degree in law enforcement in 2010. He and Kauser were classmates.
Christian Dobratz, a former assistant professor at the university, said both officers excelled in courses on tactics and emergency response techniques. They were named best in their graduating class, and Dobratz said they seemed cut out for the challenges of police work.
Yanez “is an intelligent person, he has a lot of common sense,” Dobratz said. “Never once did I see behavior that would ever cause me to question their ethics.”
In 2014, the department selected Yanez to be part of a special crime prevention unit, whose members were hand-picked based on “their initiative, creativeness and varied backgrounds in law enforcement,” according to the department’s annual report.
About the same time, Yanez joined the Minnesota chapter of the National Latino Peace Officers Association, where he worked to raise money for and connect with Latino youth, said John Lozoya, one of the organization’s founders.
Lozoya recalled him as an active, passionate and approachable member.
“He’s a very sensitive officer, he cares about people,” Kelly said. “He would drive around and stop and talk, and get out of the car, meet people and say hello.”
Yanez is cooperating with state investigators, who interviewed him within 15 hours of the shooting, Kelly said. Authorities said several videos, including squad car video, have been collected, though St. Anthony officers don’t wear body cameras.
In the video she streamed on social media, Reynolds describes being pulled over for what the officer told her was a “busted tail light.” The video shows her in a car next to a bloodied Castile slumped in a seat.
A clearly distraught person who appears to be a police officer stands at the car’s window, tells her 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.
Court records show the traffic stop was at least the 52nd time that Castile, a 32-year-old school cafeteria supervisor, had been pulled over in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area since 2002. He had been given citations for minor offenses including speeding, driving without a muffler and not wearing a seat belt.
Kelly said the broken tail light wasn’t the only reason for the latest traffic stop, but he would not elaborate.
The night after Castile was killed, five police officers were fatally shot and others were wounded during Black Lives Matter protests in Dallas over Castile’s killing and the fatal police shooting of 37-year-old Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Sterling’s and Castile’s families denounced the attack on the Dallas officers.