St. Paul police chief asks for more officers, citing concerns over response times

A bald man in a suit stands in a dark wood paneled room.
St. Paul Chief of Police Todd Axtell prepares to speak to the City Council inside of their chambers in St. Paul on Wednesday.
Evan Frost | MPR News

St. Paul’s police chief is asking City Council members not to pass Mayor Melvin Carter’s 2020 budget that proposes to cut five future officer positions.

St. Paul Police Chief Todd Axtell asked the City Council for more, not fewer, officers and resources for his department.

The department’s 635 officers are responsible for serving more than 300,000 people in St. Paul. Axtell said officers have trouble responding to the increasing number of 911 calls in recent years. The most serious are called Priority-2, which require an officer be dispatched within 30 seconds.

“The most frequent P-2 timed out call is an in-progress domestic call,” Axtell said. “Our most serious crimes in progress waited to be dispatched longer than the allowable wait time within 30 seconds. This is 14 times a day.”

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Axtell said it’s taking too long by department standards about 45 times a day for his officers to respond to all types of calls to police.

Ward 4 council member Mitra Jalali Nelson said she supported the mayor’s idea of reducing future positions.

”An increase in calls doesn’t mean an increase in crime and it doesn’t necessarily relate to our performance in responding to calls,” Jalali Nelson said. “It certainly raises questions for me about the culture we are setting about everyone calling the police for everything when that might not be necessary.”

The city faces an expected $17 million budget gap next year, one Carter said comes largely from salary increases for city workers, including public safety staff. A third of the city’s total general fund spending goes toward the police department. Overall, Carter’s budget allocates $4.5 million more to the police budget largely because of those pay increases.

Earlier this month, Carter said he would need to cut $4 million, a proposal that would affect every city department. He’s also asked for a 4.85 percent tax levy increase for 2020.

At a recent public meeting about the budget proposal, Bahieh Hartshorn said the police department could be smaller. A member of Root and Restore, a St. Paul coalition focused on police accountability, Hartshorn lives on the city’s west side.

”Safety is rooted in community and actual community solutions. And police are actually not the solution to safety. It’s a measure that may provide a Band-Aid but also can result in further, like, harm to our communities,” Hartshorn said.

On the east side of St. Paul, Marie Grimm and her husband shared grilled food with members of the police and fire departments, as they’ve done this several times over the summer. They don’t want to see officer positions cut.

”I think it’s a terrible idea in fact I think they probably need a few more positions,” said Marie Grimm, as children enjoyed a bounce house and watched safety demonstrations.

”These kinds of events help because the police that are here are fostering relationships.”

St. Paul residents attend a police-community engagement event.
St. Paul residents attend a police-community engagement event, called A Safe Summer Nights, at Highwood Hills Recreation Center on Aug. 29, 2019.
Nina Moini | MPR News

Since he became chief in 2016, Axtell has created a Community Engagement Division meant to make more connections with people outside of crime scenes.

Three of the seven City Council members, some of whom represent the east side, said the department should expand. Ward 7 council member Jane Prince said many of her constituents tell her they feel scared as they hear more gunfire.

”That has a dramatic impact on areas I represent which are areas of concentrated poverty,” Prince said.

The council approved nine additional officer positions last year. Axtell recently eliminated the mounted patrol and turned some IT positions over to civilians to get 18 officers back on the street.