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More than 90 percent of St. Paul killings this year committed with a gun

Federal law enforcement officials vow to help city in the grip of gun-related violence

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St. Paul Police Chief Todd Axtell, Mayor Melvin Carter
St. Paul Police Chief Todd Axtell and Mayor Melvin Carter walk into a conference room to talk about the gun violence in the city on Sept. 10, 2019. The number of shooting deaths in St. Paul so far this year and the frequency at which handguns have been used to kill are the highest in the capital city in nearly 30 years.
Evan Frost | MPR News file

As St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter prepared Thursday to listen to citizens’ concerns about gun violence, family, friends and classmates were mourning the loss of a teen shot and killed in the capital city.

Police say Da'Qwan Jones-Morris, 17, died inside a home on Annapolis Street East on Wednesday after suffering a gunshot wound to his upper body.

On Thursday, the principal of Henry Sibley High School, Ron Monson, said the school is mourning his loss.

"Da'Qwan was funny, outgoing and well-liked by students and staff alike,” he said. “He was a key member of the Warrior football and basketball teams. According to John Carrier, the boys' varsity basketball coach for Henry Sibley, 'Da'Qwan was an amazing young man. He had an infectious personality, which pulled in everyone around him."

Police said two teenage boys, 15 and 16, are in custody in the fatal shooting. The 16-year-old has been charged with second-degree manslaughter. The preliminary investigation suggests the shooting was accidental.

A man in a police uniform looks off camera left and speaks into a mic.
St. Paul Police Chief Todd Axtell during a press conference in 2019.
Evan Frost | MPR News

In an interview held hours before Jones-Morris’ death, St. Paul Police Chief Todd Axtell bemoaned the high number of gun-related killings this year.

Nearly 90 percent of homicides to date this year — 26 of the 29 — involved firearms. In one of the fatal shootings, a St. Paul police officer shot and killed Ronald Davis.

The number of shooting deaths and the frequency at which guns, mostly handguns, have been used to kill are the highest in nearly 30 years. FBI data show the previous high mark for the number of handgun-related killings in St. Paul was 18, back in 1995.

Axtell has reassigned officers to help shore up the department’s patrol and investigations units. Officers have taken more than 530 guns off the street this year, more than last year.

On Thursday, the U.S. Attorney in Minneapolis confirmed she met with Axtell, who has said he is working with federal agencies to help stave off future violence.

“This afternoon, and at my request, I met with St. Paul Police Chief Todd Axtell along with the top leaders of federal, state and local law enforcement agencies to discuss the pressing gun-violence issue in St. Paul. All agencies present, including the FBI, ATF, U.S. Marshals, BCA, and Ramsey County Sheriff’s Office offered their full support and dedicated resources to address the problem,’’ Erica MacDonald said in a written statement. 

U.S. Attorney Erica MacDonald speaks on Dec. 12, 2018.
U.S. Attorney for Minnesota Erica MacDonald.
Matt Sepic | MPR News file

“It is my belief that the joint efforts of these federal, state and local agencies and their combined expertise and resources will ensure that every available resource is brought to bear to stem the violence and protect the community,’’ she said.

She also noted that any plan to combat violence also needs plans for treatment and prevention. MacDonald vowed to provide updates on the group’s progress.

Residents not alone in their concern

The violence is hitting city residents and victims the hardest. But officers are under increasing strain, said Axtell.

“I am concerned about the health and well-being of our officers,” he said. “The resources of this department are incredibly strained right now, the detectives and the officers who respond to these calls right now.” Axtell said more than 40 personnel are assigned to each homicide.

Police not only need help from law enforcement partners, said Axtell, but also from community members. He said there are still too many people who believe that “snitching” or coming to police with information is a bad thing.

“We need everyone’s help to come forward and let us know who’s got the guns and who’s been firing them,” said Axtell.

Broken trust between community and police can allow violent crime to flourish, said David Squier Jones, a criminologist and a 17-year St. Paul resident. He said studies show that when police focus on low-level arrests, yet fail to make arrests or “clear” homicide cases, people living in those communities tend to trust police less.

And that contributes to a vicious cycle.

“Folks aren’t reporting to the police because they don’t trust them,” said Jones. “And that results in retaliatory violence. And that then results in lower clearance rates because the trust with the police is not there, where the people who know information about these defenders are not telling police.”

Jones, who served on the St. Paul Police Department as a patrol officer for a year in the early 2000s, is critical of how St. Paul city leaders are handling this year's uptick in violence. The Pioneer Press recently reported that city officials declined to sign onto an anti-violence initiative which included a likely $100,000 grant.

Jones said the Group Violence Intervention model, which is being used in Minneapolis, is widely accepted as an effective way to reduce gun violence.

"It's been implemented in various different cities across the United States and worldwide. It's been studied extensively for over 20 years. It is empirically supported. It is data driven," he said.

Earlier this year, Mayor Carter and Chief Axtell announced a five-point strategy in response to the spike in killings. The plan includes the use of new technology and increased community engagement.

St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter and Police Chief Todd Axtell
St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter (left) and Police Chief Todd Axtell hold a press conference on Sept. 10, 2019, in response to the recent gun violence in the city.
Evan Frost | MPR News file