'A daunting responsibility, and one I embrace': St. Paul police chief nominee has deep roots in city

A crowd circles around a man in uniform.
Axel Henry talks with other officers after being nominated to serve as the next St. Paul police chief on Tuesday at St. Paul City Hall.
Nicole Neri for MPR News

At a packed St. Paul City Hall on Tuesday, people congratulated Axel Henry on his nomination to be the city's new police chief.

But if you would have asked Henry what he wanted to do as a younger person?

"When I walked out of St. Paul Central High School in 1987, I did not want to be a police officer," Henry recalled after Tuesday's announcement.

Instead, Henry went on to get his degree in business administration and accounting from the University of St. Thomas. But a white-collar job only paid the bills; Henry said he wanted more than a paycheck — he wanted a purpose.

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"Something was drawing me to it, and as a young person at the age of 22, 23 I didn’t know what that was, but as an adult I do. I wanted to serve something bigger than myself," he said.

That’s when the St. Paul native joined the police force. He's been with the St. Paul police department for 24 years as an officer, sergeant and district commander. Henry grew up in the Macalester-Groveland area and his dad taught English at Macalester College. Now, at 54 years old, he said he knows the weight his new title as chief carries.

Two people stand near a stage, looking towards the right.
Mayor Melvin Carter announces Axel Henry (right) as his nominee to be the next St. Paul police chief police on Tuesday at St. Paul City Hall.
Nicole Neri for MPR News

"This is a daunting responsibility, and it’s one I embrace," he said. "The key for this is I want to make sure I show up and represent the city."

The St. Paul Police Department has had its fair share of challenges. With several officer-involved shootings over the past five years, calls for more police accountability and broken bonds with police, Henry said he'll need to work to gain the public's trust.

"Now is the time they need us the most. As you’re saying, as people are withdrawing from this line of work, as we’ve seen some crime statistics on the rise, particularly homicides — now is the time where the honor, and the service and the purpose of what people do is needed the most," Henry said.

Shortly after Tuesday’s police chief announcement, St. Paul City Council member Rebecca Noecker said she's excited about the announcement, but has high expectations.

"I want to see our chief be open and honest about the challenges his department is facing, the resources he needs," she said. "I want him to be someone (that) everyone in the community feels like they can reach out to and talk to. I want him to be accessible, and not behind a wall in City Hall."

"I wouldn’t expect anything less," Henry said of those expectations. "I said during this whole process and in one of the forums as a matter of fact, that I thought the next chief had to be as comfortable on the street corner as they were in the Council chambers."

St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter said he’s confident Henry will live up to those standards.

"In fact, he’s earned our trust, and he’s been an officer who has worn his badge for years, he’s somebody who grew up in our community, playing in the rec centers, hanging out in our St. Paul public schools," Carter said Tuesday.

Henry’s partner, Mikeya Griffin, is the executive director of the Rondo Community Land Trust, a group working to build wealth and stability in St. Paul neighborhoods through affordable homeownership and other programs.

She stood by him and held his hand during Tuesday’s announcement.

"My family moved up here in 1940 from Mississippi and they settled in the Rondo community. Axel's grown up in and around the Rondo community, and so I and my entire family are so proud of him," she said.

"When I mentioned this city raised me, I literally meant this city and the people in it raised me. I’ve had adopted mother figures my whole life growing up and they’re still very important in my life today," Henry said.

Henry said he doesn’t take this full-circle moment lightly. His mom was out of the picture since he was 11. He held back tears as he described why his role as chief is personal.

"When you think about that, even right now I’m starting to get choked up about it — but when you think about the potential that we have here, we can’t miss these opportunities, we have to take advantage of these now," he said. "We have a lot of young folks that are struggling right now. We have a community that needs us better than ever, and we have to show up at every level in this city."

Once approved by the St. Paul City Council — with a majority of council members on hand for Tuesday’s announcement, his confirmation appears certain — Henry will replace retired Chief Todd Axtell.