St. Paul, Minneapolis struggle to build budgets that can rein in the violence

A composite image of Melvin Carter and Jacob Frey
As violent crime spikes in St. Paul and Minneapolis, politicians including Mayors Melvin Carter and Jacob Frey are under pressure to balance spending on police with other crime prevention strategies.
Evan Frost | MPR News 2017

Updated: 1:27 p.m.

Budget debates in Minneapolis and St. Paul have been especially contentious this year.

Members of groups like Black Lives Matter and Reclaim the Block turned out in force throughout the monthslong public hearing process in Minneapolis. Activists argued that public safety initiatives aimed at putting more cops on the streets would result in more potential for police brutality.

Protesters heckled Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey during his budget announcement in August when he said he wanted to add 14 officers to the city’s police force.

And activists continued to challenge the mayor last week when he proposed a compromise.

“You care about the cops more than the many. You gave them gold and gave us pennies,” they chanted, as one of the demonstrators poured a bag of pennies on the floor of a City Hall conference room.

Protesters gathered at Minneapolis City Hall.
A protester holds a sign that reads "Jacob Frey, all you give is lip service" at Minneapolis City Hall on Friday.
Brandt Williams | MPR News

Frey worked with members of the City Council to shift the money from those 14 new positions to hiring future cadet classes. They said the move would help the department backfill open positions, instead of creating more police jobs. But the proposal didn’t satisfy some police department critics.

“We’d like to see more money invested in community-led safety solutions,” said Kandace Montgomery, one of a group of protesters who gathered on Friday at City Hall to express opposition to that change. “We’re very disappointed. We’re glad the council did something, but it’s not enough.”

The council also added nearly a half-million dollars to existing violence prevention programs. That includes the city’s efforts to address domestic violence and street crime through a program called Group Violence Intervention.

Council member Cam Gordon welcomed the shift toward more funding for violence prevention. However, he also wanted the city to go further. Gordon co-authored an amendment, which did not pass, that sought to take another half-million dollars out of hiring cadet classes and put it towards opioid abuse prevention and other initiatives.

“I think we are at a pivotal point in our city’s history right now, where we are trying to rethink and understand anew how to do public safety,” said Gordon, who added that some of his constituents have raised similar concerns. “They weren’t speaking like they would 10 years ago about ‘we need more police. Why don’t we have more police on our streets?’ They were talking about ‘we need to do alternatives. We need to figure this problem out.’”

The debate over public safety spending is similar in St. Paul. The city held three community meetings last month that explored ways to stem a surge of violence in the city. The number of homicides in St. Paul so far in 2019 is double the number of killings recorded in all of 2018.

After listening to the concerns of city residents, St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter offered up a $1.5 million supplemental budget which he said will bolster community-based violence prevention programming. He also proposed adding a 1 percent increase in the proposed property tax levy to cover the more investments in youth outreach and programs which he said are proven to be effective.

“Research shows that funding caring, committed community members and organizations to engage and intervene with our youth and in our neighborhoods is one of the most productive ways to reduce and prevent violent crime,” said Carter at a Nov. 20 City Council meeting.

Council member Dai Thao said he appreciates Carter’s willingness to fund more community-based violence prevention programs. And Thao said he will introduce a budget amendment Wednesday that adds $200,000 in one-time that will be available for organizations that combat domestic violence including those which serve in the Hmong community.

However, Carter’s supplemental proposal doesn’t include funding for a gunshot detection system, like the ShotSpotter technology currently in use in Minneapolis. ShotSpotter uses outdoor sensors which can detect the sound of firearm discharges and relay approximate information to police about where the shots were fired from.

Thao, who represents neighborhoods in the Frogtown and Summit University areas, which have seen several homicides this year, said he would like to see the city test the system.

“If you have a technology that makes your department more efficient — instead of officers trying to figure out where the shots are coming from, where the shell casings are left behind — they can respond faster because it’s real time,” said Thao. “They can get to the crime scene faster or they can mitigate the threat.”

Police officials in both cities have said the number of officers they have available to work often falls far below the number of officers they’re authorized to have. So, Minneapolis and St. Paul city officials are exploring how to best use the officers they have on hand.

“We all want to have the appropriate number of officers on the streets,” said St. Paul City Council President Amy Brendmoen. “And right now, it seems we may have a few too many sitting behind desks.”

St. Paul Police Chief Todd Axtell has already made some moves to free up more officers to work patrol shifts. Brendmoen said the city has also commissioned an internal police staffing study that will likely be available next year. The results of that study will help inform city leaders on how to “right size” the department in preparation for 2021 budget talks, said Brendmoen.

Law enforcement experts say Minneapolis and St. Paul should be just as concerned about the type of policing their officers perform as they are about how many officers they put on the streets.

Criminologist David Squier Jones said it’s not enough for a police department to expect its officers to make more traffic stops and arrests. Cities need to support and fund initiatives that boost community trust in police. People of color in Minneapolis, St. Paul and elsewhere often don’t trust police to serve them fairly — or even fear police will do them harm.

“It’s a very visceral reaction. It’s, in many cases, an intergenerational reaction from decades and even centuries of oppression,” said Jones who is also a former police officer. “So, there are a lot of people who have a legitimate fear of having more cops on the street not helping them.”

When people trust police, said Jones, they are more likely to call them to report crime and cooperate with police to solve crimes. Jones and other criminologists say without that community help, violence often thrives.

Both cities are on the right track, he said, when it comes to funding public-health-based violence prevention models. However, not all public health strategies are created equal.

Jones said the Group Violence Intervention model, also called GVI, in use in Minneapolis but not St. Paul, has the best track record. The program identifies the people most likely to commit gun violence and facilitates an intervention by police and community leaders. He said GVI treats violence like an epidemic and pinpoints the source in order to keep it from spreading.

“With any kind of epidemic, you don’t just try to prevent future occurrences of the disease,” said Jones. “You try to stop the epidemic.”

Editor's note (Dec. 11, 2019): The story has been updated to clarify that Minneapolis police money was shifted directly to recruiting more cadets. This story also has been updated to clarify that Dai Thao's amendment funding efforts to combat domestic violence will be available for a range of different groups — not just the Hmong community.

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