Monday, December 22, 2014
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Trial for alleged cop killers to go back in time

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St. Paul Police Officer James Sackett was shot to death in 1970 as he responded to a false emergency call. The trial of two men accused of his murder begins Monday. (Photo courtesy of St. Paul Police Depatment)
The murder trial in the killing of St. Paul police officer James Sackett gets underway Monday. In 1970, Sackett was lured to a house by a fake 911 call, and then shot by a sniper. Two black men, Larry Clark and Ronald Reed, are accused in the shooting death of the officer, who was white. The judge in the case has said he only wants to hear about the crime, not the times. But the two may be difficult to separate.

St. Paul, Minn. — Ronald Reed and Larry Clark are now in their 50s. Police have suspected their involvement from nearly the time of the murder, but they were arrested only last January.

Prosecutors say they expect to have testimony from witnesses who were not willing to testify back then.

Until now, only one other person has been charged in the case -- Constance Trimble in 1970. She admitted making the false emergency call that lured Sackett to the home, but was acquitted of murder charges. Now she's expected to testify against Clark and Reed.

The judge in the case has said he only wants to hear about the crime, not the times in which it occurred. But the two may be difficult to separate.

In 1970 St. Paul's black population was small -- just over 3 percent. And most members of the African-American community lived in the Summit-University neighborhood.

Former St. Paul Police Chief William Finney grew up in that area. He says, unlike the South with its Jim Crow laws that kept blacks and whites separated, St. Paul had unwritten rules in place.

"We didn't have the Jim Crow laws, but there were cultural barriers that said, 'You stay on your side of town, we'll stay on our side of town,'" Finney said.

State Rep. Mindy Greiling experienced those boundaries. She was a teacher at J.J. Hill Elementary School in the early 1970s. She says as a white woman, she rarely had problems at her school teaching black children and dealing with their parents.

But Greiling says there was a great deal of distrust between blacks and whites who didn't know each other, and that she wasn't always welcome in some parts of the black community.

"Sometimes you'd be driving down the street on your way to school and someone would just holler out the window at you, 'Whitey, what are you doing on our street?' or something like that," Greiling recalled. "There was that tension that I never feel in the year 2005, but in the 1970s, that kind of stuff was very raw. I wouldn't have expected to be shot driving down the street, but the idea that someone might confront you was common."

As a young black college student, Robert McClain was familiar with confrontation as well. McClain, a native of Philadelphia, enrolled at Macalaster College in 1969.

He says there were many times during his college days that he was stopped by police as he walked late at night along Grand Ave. McClain said they'd insist on seeing his identification and then challenge its authenticity.

McClain said others had worse experiences than he did, and there was little love lost between the black community and the St. Paul police.

"There was a lot of animosity towards police because some were overzealous when they would stop you. They would frisk you, they would throw you against a car," McClain said. "It was irritating to ride by a corner and see a line of young black men up against the wall and being searched. And you were inquiring of what's going on, and you were told in a negative or strong tone to move on.

"The police had a poor community relations strategy in dealing with performing their duties. And I think that's where the breakdown was," said McClain.

The late 1960s and early 1970s were a time of turmoil across the nation. Hy Berman, a retired history professor from the University of Minnesota, says that was also a time in the Twin Cities when the African-American and student communities became increasingly active on a number of fronts.

"The civil rights front, the protest against what's perceived as urban wrongs, the war in Vietnam was heating up, the draft was heating up," Berman recalled. "So it was a very active time, in terms of both student protests and racial protest in the Twin Cities."

William Finney says many young people became tired of limitations they considered immoral and unjust. They wanted to see changes and were growing impatient. Finney says those frustrations had consequences.

"It erupted into a great deal of violence in a lot of cases, across town. And those places that didn't erupt immediately -- the atmosphere, the environment was a powder keg," Finney said.

Finney recalls a flashpoint in 1968, when police sprayed tear gas at an event many young black people had attended at Stem Hall in the St. Paul Auditorium, now known as Roy Wilkins Auditorium. As they made their way back home, some of the young people threw rocks, broke windows and started fires along the way.

Bobby Hickman also remembers the Stem Hall event. At the time, he ran the Inner City Youth League, a youth center in the Summit-University neighborhood. Hickman says there was a great deal of anger bubbling in the black community, especially among young people.

Hickman says there were concerns about police brutality, substandard housing, education and employment, and the policies that supported those conditions. And, Hickman says, members of the police force, who were overwhelmingly white, represented those policies.

"The only face that anybody could see at our level was, of course, the people who were in place to enforce the laws, and the rules, and the authorities and policies -- and that was the police," said Hickman. "We didn't see them as protectors and servers, we saw them as enforcers. And their methods of enforcement were deplorable."

That feeling about law enforcement, says former chief Finney, made being a police officer difficult in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

"It was a bad time to be a public servant, especially a public official as a police officer," said Finney. "It was a bad time to be a police officer because you were being forced to defend a system that people felt was corrupt."

Still, Finney joined the police department a year after Officer James Sackett was killed. He says he does have faith in the system and hopes that it will deliver justice for Sackett, even 35 years after his death.

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