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St. Paul's new top cop reflects on first 100 days on the job

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Todd Axtell
St. Paul Police Chief Todd Axtell
Tim Nelson | MPR News file

Serious crime is ebbing down in St. Paul, despite a concerning spike in gunfire, new St. Paul police chief Todd Axtell told the city council Wednesday in a report on his first 100 days in the top job.

But he also rolled out an ambitious agenda for change, including an online report comparing the department's operations with federal standards outlined in last year's report from the President's Task Force on 21st Century Policing. 

Among other things, that outlines a four-part agenda for improving trust in police, including transparency and accountability, improving non-enforcement interactions with the communities they serve, increasing diversity in police ranks and strict attention to fair policing policies.

Axtell's list also included:

• Posting traffic stop data collected by the department

• Developing a "community impact assessment" to guide police response to large gatherings and demonstrations

• Annual implicit bias training for officers

• Surveys of people who call and interact with police

• Boosting community engagement with Safe Summer Nights and other programs

Axtell acknowledged that he'd learned some "lessons" at the height of this summer's protests over the police shooting of Philando Castile, including a shutdown of Interstate 94 that he termed a "riot" at the time. In an interview, he said it reinforced for him the need to establish relationships with people in the community that could keep communications open and frank, even at times of high stress and conflict.

He also said the department has stepped up training for its own officers as well as surrounding agencies for responding as a "field force," for large demonstrations and other incidents. He said training this summer involved over 1,000 officers. 

"We're going to expect the best, but be prepared for the worst," Axtell told the council.

That comes as critics of the department are calling for the city to drop charges against protesters who stopped traffic and established an encampment in front of the governor's mansion in the wake of the Castile Falcon Heights in July.

Axtell also said his department was wrapping up its policy on the anticipated roll out of body cameras for officers. He said he expected 40 officers from the department's Western District would test equipment from two different vendors this fall. He said the entire department should be wearing the cameras by the middle of next summer.

In light of controversies involving school resource officers, Axtell said he planned to have police in St. Paul Public Schools boost their interaction with students in the classrooms and become "partners in the education process, rather than just having an enforcement role."

Axtell asked the council for patience and said many of the changes would be rolled out over the next year. "Our department is a work in progress. We are committed to consistently listening to our community, setting goals, working to achieve them and measuring our progress."