When people protesting the death of Philando Castile turned their demonstration from the site of the officer-involved shooting in Falcon Heights to the governor’s residence in St. Paul, it drove home to Gov. Mark Dayton the need for a response from the state’s highest official.
“On behalf of all decent-minded Minnesotans, which are almost all of them in the state, we’re shocked and horrified by what happened last night,” Dayton said at a Thursday morning press conference called by demonstrators in front of his residence. “I agree that this kind of behavior is unacceptable. … Justice will be served in Minnesota.”
At his own press conference that afternoon, Dayton went further, detailing his calls to federal officials and saying the shooting wouldn’t have happened if the people in Castile’s car had been white. Within a few hours, several police officers in Dallas were gunned down during a peaceful protest over the deaths of Castile and Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge.
Dayton’s statements on Thursday drew both praise and fire.
“He just named it,” Rep. Peggy Flanagan, DFL-St. Louis Park, said Friday. “He’s really examining his own privilege and putting that on display.”
“Governor Dayton made an idiotic statement today, saying that he thought if these people would have been white, they would be alive today,” Cornish wrote. “I told myself not to comment on this case as far as what happened, just for this reason. Inciting feelings one way or the other, not even knowing what the total facts are yet.”
Crafting an appropriate response to such a crisis is “a test of an administration, to see the capacity of their team [in] how you react and handle things,” said John T. Willis, a former Maryland secretary of state who teaches courses on media and government at the University of Baltimore College of Public Affairs.
Failing to meet that test, Willis said, can lead to dire consequences—both for the public, such as the civil unrest in Baltimore after the death of Freddy Gray in police custody, and for the leaders’ future political careers.
Rachael E. Rice, president of the Rice Consulting firm in Maryland, who advises public officials across that state, called it “a high-wire act.”
“… It’s hard to think of a more challenging situation, especially in the last year” with the series of “racially charged” fatalities, she said.
Blois Olson of Fluence Media in the Twin Cities, a media consultant on high-profile legal issues, said crises demand multiple considerations. Often there are three main voices: communications professionals, lawyers and the elected official and his or her aides.
“At all points, there is a natural and varied level of tension,” Olson said, between advisers arguing their perspectives are more urgent than the others.
He offered a shorthand version of the common debate: “Screw the law” versus “screw the people” versus “I’m the governor — I’m going to say what I want to say.”
It has to happen fast and the outcome depends largely on the intuition and experience of the leader. Often the communications side has more “gravitas,” Olson said, because of the immediate pressure to say something.
Internal dissent can be beneficial, said Willis: “Good leaders sometimes want conflicting advice.”
Cara Letofsky, a policy aide to former Minneapolis mayor R.T. Rybak and now a Metropolitan Council member recalled how it worked at City Hall.
Whenever a shooting or other emergency happened, the police chief would first contact Rybak’s policy aide—in this case, Sherman Patterson. Patterson would call Rybak, who would then determine how to respond. If he needed more advice, he’d work with some combination of Sherman, his chief of staff (Tina Smith, now lieutenant governor) and his communications director.
Council members and department heads, along with people outside city government, such as community leaders, would sometimes be on the list, Letofsky said.
“I have found that the more sophisticated the city and the larger the government, in general the response is more thought out,” said Susan M. Tellem, a public relations professional and partner in the California firm Tellem Grody PR Inc. who claims more than 30 years of experience as a crisis management expert.
“We suggest making a statement via press briefing and depending on the person’s experience, answering at most five minutes of questions,” Tellem said.
As updates come in, more briefings can be held.
“If you say nothing, you are stonewalling and this opens the door to rumor and speculation, so something is better than nothing,” Tellem said. “Don’t rush into a response. Sit down and examine what facts you have and then decide on what you can and cannot say.”
Political scientist David Schultz, who teaches at Hamline University and at the University of Minnesota School of Law, once served as director of code enforcement, zoning and planning in Binghamton, New York. It was a kind of all-purpose complaint desk that dealt with emergencies.
“First, don’t speak until you have enough facts,” Schultz said. “It is easy to respond quickly and say something stupid, or at least something you will later regret. Second, make sure you have … staff prepared or designated in advance who will be part of an emergency response team [to] provide the official with the list of options and responses.”
Be prepared for emergencies like a shooting and don’t address each problem in an ad hoc fashion, Schultz added. Have a process in place before problems occur and follow the process.
While Republicans have been hard on the DFL governor, his party members have rallied to his side.
Steven Schier, professor of political science at Carleton College in Northfield, said it’s understandable DFL officeholders would get out front in responding to the shooting because “this is an issue that affects their political base in the Twin Cities and touches on justice issues of great concern to the DFL coalition.”
Among DFL faces at the rallies Thursday was Sen. John Marty, DFL-Roseville. In view of citizens’ feelings of “shock and sadness and anger and frustration,” Marty said, the governor conveyed the “right message.”
John Hottinger, a lobbyist and former DFL Senate majority leader, said he was “proud” of Dayton’s response, which he said came out of his personal history and emotion.
That emotion was driven home by the only African-American in the state House of Representatives at the morning press conference.
“My heart hurts,” said Rep. Rena Moran, DFL-St. Paul, adding she couldn’t bear to watch the Facebook video of the aftermath of Castile’s shooting that riveted viewers worldwide. “I cannot watch this black man die in front of my eyes. This is not OK.”
Flanagan said she was impressed by the governor’s response. “He went outside [Thursday] morning. They yelled at him, they let him have it. People are hurting and they are angry. He just sort of stood there and took it.
“That was the right response,” she said. “People do not want to hear excuses … ‘Here’s my policy solution for fixing racism.’”
Going outside his residence to speak to the Castile family “without a lot of fanfare,” she said, “[showed] quiet, steady leadership.”
Brendan Roediger, a law professor at St. Louis University who earned his undergraduate degree at the University of Minnesota, observed the responses of public officials in Ferguson, Missouri, after the 2014 officer-involved shooting of African-American Michael Brown.
Dayton wasn’t even scratching the surface, in Roediger’s view, of a much-needed, far-reaching critique and reform of policing in America. “What you’ll hear is a lot of lip service to community policing,” he said. “The truth is [officials] only take it seriously for the two weeks that people are in the streets.”
Except as noted, people interviewed for this article spoke Thursday before the Dallas shootings.
Dayton issued a statement on that subject Friday morning and set yet another press conference that afternoon.
“The terrible acts of murder in Dallas have shocked and horrified the nation,” he said. “…Today, our hearts also go out to the many, many law enforcement officers who faithfully serve our communities, and risk their lives every day and night to protect and serve the people of Minnesota and the nation.
“I ask all Minnesotans, from all faiths and walks of life, to pray and work for an end to the violence that has defined this last week,” he said. “I urge all of us, everywhere, to call upon our own best natures: to care for one another, seek to understand one another, and together build stronger, safer communities for everyone.”