Uptick in violence stirs debate over St. Paul police staffing

St. Paul Police Academy's first graduating class of 2007 stands at attention at a May, 2007 swearing-in ceremony.
MPR Photo/Marisa Helms

Few days have gone by without a shooting this month on St. Paul's east side. The tally includes one person shot in the leg, another in the foot, one in the elbow and a fourth in the abdomen. None of the shootings were fatal.

"We believe that these incidents are all related," says Tom Walsh, a spokesman for the St. Paul Police Department. "It's two groups of people, and it's going back and forth between them. That's what our investigators are focusing on right now, and they're focusing on the idea of preventing it from escalating into something even more serious."

St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman
St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman has pledged to increase the number of police officers in the city by 100 by the year 2010.
MPR Photo/Art Hughes

Walsh says police have identified the two groups as gangs -- the Selby Siders and the East Siders.

"We think that by intervening, by talking with the most provocative people in those groups of people, by arresting them for other events for other unrelated incidents -- some of them have warrants, some have been involved in drug trafficking -- that we'll be able to at least, potentially, keep it from escalating," Walsh adds.

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Some in the neighborhood where the shootings have taken place say it's bad enough already. Business owner and resident Kathy Kieffer says crime is the worst it's been in the 22 years she and her husband have lived in the area. Kieffer recalls one of the recent shootings.

"One was a half a block from me, which was at 4 o'clock in the afternoon, when I have customers coming and going in the front door. And these bullets are flying right down the street from me," Kieffer recalls. "How can I safely run a business, and successfully run a business? I can't. Not with that stuff going on."

"Some of it is political embarrassment to some degree. They want to try to portray that the city is safer than it actually is."

Kieffer's concern about the recent shootings is shared by a larger group of activists who believe the city is ignoring the problem.

Dave Titus, president of the St. Paul police union, blames Mayor Chris Coleman for not adequately addressing crime in the city. He questions why the rash of shootings has not received more attention.

"I believe that it's a common practice for elected officials to minimize crime at times," says Titus. "And I think the fact that we have not heard hardly anything about these in the media, that that is certainly a possibility here."

Titus has been complaining since last summer that the city does not have enough police officers to handle the crime in St. Paul. He says he thinks city officials would downplay the crimes because of that.

"And some of it is political embarrassment to some degree. They want to try to portray that the city is safer than it actually is," says Titus.

City officials strenuously disagree.

Mayor Chris Coleman's spokesman Bob Hume says it is, in fact, Titus who is trying to make the city look more dangerous than it really is.

St. Paul  Chief John Harrington
St. Paul Police Chief John Harrington.
MPR Photo/Marisa Helms

"The police federation's job is to advocate for more officers. And we feel like we're addressing their needs. We're in active contract negotiations with them, but we're not going to respond to scare tactics on this issue," says Hume. "We're working hard to address public safety issues across the city. We're investing in public safety ... more so than any other area in the city."

Overall, major crime in St. Paul is down 15 percent from the same time last year.

Police Chief John Harrington says the department is putting more gang squads, summer overtime resources and community policing into the east side neighborhood where the shootings took place.

"The efforts we're putting into place really will help make a long-term impact over there," says Harrington.

Mayor Chris Coleman faced similar charges of inadequate police staffing last summer from the Police Federation and the same group of neighbors concerned about safety. At that time, Coleman made a pledge to add 100 new officers by 2010.

The city just graduated a new class of 15, with the city hiring a total of 38 officers since Coleman took office a year ago.

The city is on track to hire an additional 50 officers in the fall. But officials are also facing a multi-million dollar budget shortfall which could affect the city's hiring goals.