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St. Paul shifts more cops to street duty to stem violence

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St. Paul Police Chief Todd Axtell next to Mayor Melvin Carter.
St. Paul Police Chief Todd Axtell speaks about the recent gun violence in the city as Mayor Melvin Carter listens on Tuesday, Sept. 10, 2019.
Evan Frost | MPR News

St. Paul police are adding more cops to their efforts to thwart a rash of killings that threaten to make it a record year for homicides.

Chief Todd Axtell says he is temporarily pulling seven or eight of his officers from a regional violent gang task force led by the FBI and returning them to St. Paul. He’s also moving a forensic specialist from narcotics to DNA analysis to track down criminals more quickly.

The department is holding daily gang and gun meetings with police and partner agencies, focusing on what he called the small percentage of the people involved in violent activity.

The city also pays for a full-time narcotic analyst to test narcotics at the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension — a legacy of breakdowns in the city’s own crime lab in 2013. Axtell says that money will be redirected toward faster turnarounds on DNA evidence analysis to solve gun crimes.

“The common denominator as I see it is that we’ve had 24 of the 27 homicides have included a gun, and we have not seen that level of violence involved with guns in the history of this city,” Axtell said in a wide-ranging interview with MPR News Wednesday.

“Looking back at the history of gun-related homicides, the last time we’ve even come close to that was 1993 and 1995,” he said. “Each of those years, there were 18 gun-related homicides and we’ve already eclipsed that number.”

Officers have recovered over 530 guns this year, he added. “You name it, we’re finding it. It is an alarming number when you look at the volume of guns coming into this department.”

The level of violence this year is taxing the department emotionally and financially. A single homicide often results in $25,000 to $30,000 in overtime costs alone, the chief said. “It’s exhausting the members of our department and their families, and it does affect our ability to respond to other levels of crime in the city.”

Axtell, though, declined to criticize the administration of mayor Melvin Carter, after reports this week in the Pioneer Press that the city had declined to seek a research based “Group Violence Intervention,” or GVI project, including a likely $100,000 grant, aimed at thwarting loosely-affiliated groups from a cycle of tit-for-tat violence.

He said the effort has succeeded in other parts of the country and his department already uses some of the approaches of the National Network for Safe Communities, which created the GVI.

Axtell also defended a five-point plan that he and mayor Melvin Carter initially rolled out in September, after three slayings in a matter of nine hours in the city.

“It is a good approach,” he said, “and I firmly believe that had we not implemented that five-point plan, we would have actually seen more violence than has occurred. We have stopped a lot of it.”

But, he added, “we can always use more resources.”