St. Paul police commander is mayor's choice to be city's next police chief

Two people stand near a stage, looking towards the right.
During a City Hall press conference Tuesday, St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter announced St. Paul police commander Axel Henry as his pick to be the city's next police chief.
Nicole Neri for MPR News

Updated 2:40 p.m.

Axel Henry, a St. Paul Department commander and product of St. Paul’s neighborhoods and public schools, is Mayor Melvin Carter’s choice to be the city’s next police chief.

Henry, 54, has been with the force since 1998, working his way through the ranks as an officer, sergeant and district commander. He currently runs the department’s narcotics, financial intelligence and human trafficking division.

Two people stand near a stage facing media.
St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter on Tuesday introduces St. Paul Police Department commander Axel Henry, the mayor's choice to be they city’s new police chief.
Nicole Neri for MPR News

Carter picked him from a field of five finalists, including four internal candidates. Announcing his choice Tuesday, Carter said Henry will “uphold the highest level of service our community has come to expect” from the department.

“What we're doing today is taking someone today who has been at center of establishing, of keeping the St. Paul Police Department on the front lines, and asking him to do what he's been doing for a really long time,” Carter said.

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A man framed by flags speaks.
Axel Henry, expected to be the next St. Paul police chief, speaks during a press conference on Tuesday.
Nicole Neri for MPR News

Henry’s roots in St. Paul are as deep as the mayor’s.

He grew up in the Macalester-Groveland area. His father was a professor at Macalester College. He’s a public school kid who went to Murray Junior High School and then St. Paul Central High.

“Some would say it’s a pretty boring existence, but I’m very proud of it,” Henry said Tuesday. He has two children, 29 and 30 years old.

Over his career, he’s taken on some high-profile roles in the department, including efforts to curb domestic violence that have been key to fighting crimes from gun violence to assaults.

Henry was also in charge of rolling out the department's body camera program, which was not initially popular with the rank and file, but that he implemented successfully.

Officers who spoke with MPR News described him as a cop’s cop.

As chief, he’ll need to balance his ties to the officer ranks with the need to reshape policing amid ongoing calls for police accountability in the 2 1/2 years since George Floyd’s killing in Minneapolis police custody.

A man in uniform hugs a person.
Axel Henry is congratulated after his nomination to be St. Paul police chief on Tuesday.
Nicole Neri for MPR News

While he faces no open opposition for the top police job, Henry did a get reporter question Tuesday about his name appearing on a list of cops who had inappropriately accessed drivers license data in the past — a complaint that he said had not been sustained.

He was also a commander in the eastern district a few years back when five officers were fired by Henry's then-boss, chief Todd Axtell, after they allegedly stood by as a former cop badly beat a man outside a pizza shop.

A committee of more than 36 people selected the police chief finalists, who took part in public forums in October. Henry will need to be confirmed by the City Council, although a strong show of support from council members during the announcement Tuesday signal that he’s likely to be approved.

Henry will replace Axtell, who retired on June 1. Deputy Chief Jeremy Ellison has been serving as interim chief, and previously said he would not seek the permanent position.

At the announcement Tuesday, Henry took time to introduce and thank Mikeya Griffin, his partner, who runs the Rondo Community Land Trust, a prominent housing nonprofit based on Selby Avenue in the heart of the city's historic Black community.

“She's stood by me the entire way,” he said. “She's doing wonderful work in the community herself, and we hope to be examples of how we can all do this together.”