A proposal by St. Paul's police chief to hire more police officers sparked a small protest Monday by residents opposed to the idea.
About a dozen members of ISAIAH, a faith-based advocacy group, gathered outside St. Paul City Hall to call on Mayor Melvin Carter and the city council to hold police staffing steady. The group contends there's no need to add 50 officers over two years to make the city safer.
"It would cost the city an additional $4.5 million," said JaNae Bates, a United Church of Christ minister and the communications director at ISAIAH. "That's not a small chunk of change."
Bates said crime has been falling in St. Paul. But that depends on how you look at the statistics. For instance, from 2013 to 2017, serious crimes such as homicide and rape declined by about 2 percent in St. Paul. But from 2016 to 2017, such crimes rose 10 percent.
• 2015 report: Violent crime rates drop in St. Paul, police say
Bates said St. Paul's ratio of officers to citizens is higher than most other cities. And she said the city's current force could be better utilized. The police department is currently authorized to have 626 officers.
"The police department right now is at $101 million of our city's budget," she said. "That's a ginormous chunk and that's three times more than what we spend on things like libraries and rec centers, the things that we actually know nationally lessen the crime rates of cities."
She said the police department should focus more on addressing issues of racial disparity in police stops, instead of adding more officers to an "already messed-up situation."
Police department spokesperson Steve Linders says more officers are needed to cope with a rising number of 911 calls for service and to respond to those calls faster. He said 911 calls are up 30 percent over last year's pace.
Linders said the average time it took to dispatch officers to incidents in which someone was facing imminent harm nearly doubled from 2013 to 2017 to 2 minutes and 43 seconds.
Dispatch times for less-pressing matters such as vehicle damage and parking complaints took an average of 25 minutes in 2013 but 38 minutes last year.
"For [Police Chief Todd Axtell], this isn't about building bigger prisons or putting more people in jail," Linders said. "This is really about service and being able to help people when they need it most."
Linders said the new officers would be intensively trained in connecting with communities.
"Those officers would spend the first six months of their time with the department in our community engagement unit, getting to know the community, working with kids, working with families," he said "Getting to understand their concerns, getting to know the neighborhoods so that when they hit the streets, they're really well-prepared to deliver the kind of trusted service and respect that our community expects from us."
Mayor Melvin Carter is weighing adding cops against other city needs, as he works on his proposal for St. Paul's budget.
"It's not a yes-no answer to the question of where he stands in terms of adding officers," said Liz Xiong, a spokesperson for the mayor. "At this time, the mayor believes we need a new, more holistic approach to public safety and one that frankly looks beyond the addition of officers."
She said there's limited money for a lot of needs, including city parks, recreation operations and libraries that have been under-funded for years.
City Council member and former police officer Dan Bostrom said St. Paul needs more officers to respond more quickly to calls for service and spend more time with citizens.
"You're going to have to add more people, that's all there is to it," Bostrom said. "Because the more time you spend on these calls, the more officers you're going to have to have."
A final city budget probably won't be approved until December.