Next St. Paul police chief wants to reduce gun violence, focus on evolution

A man stands as a person in the crowd takes a photograph.
New St. Paul police chief Axel Henry will be voted in Wednesday by the St Paul City Council. He says police reform isn't a bad thing, and he is looking forward to evolve the department.
Nicole Neri for MPR News

The St. Paul City Council is expected to confirm Axel Henry as the city’s new police chief Wednesday. The 24-year veteran of the department would begin his six-year term on Monday, replacing Todd Axtell, who retired in June.

Commander Henry spoke with MPR News host Tom Crann Monday. Hear their conversation using the audio player above or read a transcript of it below. It has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

What's at the top of your agenda as you take over the St. Paul Police Department? What's job one?

I have, like, five job ones. First is obviously, we're dealing with a big issue with violent crime right now, particularly gun violence. But simultaneously, we have a recruitment and retention issue that departments all over the country are experiencing.

Then of course, just from an internal standpoint, we want to make sure that the transition — because change can always be challenging — is happening in such a way that the workforce understands what's going on, they understand the ‘why’ behind some of the decisions that are going to be made, and we make sure that none of the quality service that our public has come to expect from us gets disrupted by the the actual transition.

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You said you plan to address gun violence “without delay” the other day. We had another fatal shooting in downtown St. Paul over the weekend. How do you plan to address it?

Well, it's interesting that the solution, I think, to gun violence is also a solution to a lot of our other problems, including recruitment and retention. We need to be working holistically with our entire community on that.

Right now, the city has started a brand new group within the city called the Office of Neighborhood Safety and they have a program going called Project Peace. It's dealing with the very small amount of people who are actually committing to gun violence — figuring out who those folks are and making sure that [the violence] stops, but then also building an overall infrastructure around them.

So if it's a situation or condition in the family, finances or in the environment, we're correcting those so we're not creating another potential shooter down the road.

I want to talk about recruitment. I think it's safe to say a police department that resembles the community will get more trust from the community. Is it that simple?

I think in some ways it is that simple. I mean, when I came here under Chief [William] Finney, his mission statement was to be reflective and responsive to the community. And that seems like something someone would come up with today. I think that's an indicator of how progressive we've always been in this area.

Our mayor has that same agenda for every [department] in the city. Now, the police department just happens to be the biggest group of city employees he has.

But we have to recruit in different ways and show up in different spaces. We rely a lot on our messaging, and I spoke about bringing the community in and getting involved. It's a totally different situation hen the chief of police is saying, ‘Hey, come work here. It's a great place to work,’ than when community leaders who aren't police officers are standing out there and saying, ‘Hey, come join them because we need you to work there.’ That's the kind of leveraging that I think we need to do. That's the evolution of recruitment that needs to happen.

There have been demands for reform. As you see it, what needs to change about police work, and how is St. Paul equipped to deal with this?

I think we're uniquely equipped to deal with this because we've always been a progressive department that has been on kind of the vanguard of change for things. I go back to 2015, when President Obama published the 21st Century Task Force on Policing. And when I read it for the first time, about 65 percent of what was in there as best practices were things we'd been doing since I came to the police department. And so I reminded my coworkers that it's not in there because we're already doing it. It's in there because most places aren't doing it. And so we've got to stay on that evolution.

I think sometimes the word ‘reform’ gets a bad name, especially from law enforcement, because they take it like we're basically saying, ‘You're bad and we're going to change you.’ Really, the right way to look at it is as evolution.

We need to evolve to that next step. And we're only going to do that in concert with our community. It gets said a lot — but it's really true — we are the community and the community are the police. And if you look at it that way, these things don't seem like big mountains to climb.

You are a St. Paul born and bred, a product of the city's public schools. You went to St. Thomas University and your dad taught at Macalester College. So you have deep roots in this city. Would it be better if more St. Paul officers lived in the city they policed?

I think it would be great if we could make that happen. [But] some of the restraints have nothing to do with desire, they have to do with spouses and kids and access to in-laws. You know, police officers are subject to crazy hours and it's a tough thing to ask your entire family or support system to move into the same city.

But we are allowed to incentivize that now. That law was changed a couple of years ago, which allows for that. It's still illegal to require people to live in town. But, you know, I think that's the story that we want to write as a city. The one little part that you didn't mention in there was I started my career with the city working for Parks and Rec in high school. And so, although I didn't believe it at that time, I kept working there and would be a city employee for life. If we can use those non-police jobs as stepping stones into the city structure, and then people get to know what we do, it's a much easier transition to say, ‘Hey, maybe I do want to be a police officer. Maybe I would like to serve in that capacity.’

I tell people, you work your whole life so you can be the generous giver that you want to be and give to something bigger than yourself. Well, you get to do that from day one as a police officer — and they pay you to do it.

You spearheaded the body camera policy in the city of St. Paul. When it comes to to a policy like that, there had to be resistance. As someone who is a leader in the department, how do you deal with that resistance?

Typically, you know, paramilitary organizations and specifically military organizations, of which we are not, use transactional leadership styles. It's very much based on orders and then consequences if you fail to comply with that. I believe much more that the next generation — and even our generations — want transformational leadership. At its simplest, the differences is telling versus selling.

[With the body cameras,] probably the biggest thing that the police officers were afraid of was the consequences. What would happen in this transactional leadership model if they failed to do something right? And so we brought them in for a workgroup of officers and sergeants — no commanders, no deputy chief, nothing — to design the policies and ramifications if we didn't follow them.

And ironically, what happened was the policy that they wrote and settled on was stricter than the one that the then-chief decided to act on. I think the assumption sometimes is if we let that let folks write their own rules, that those rules will be very lenient or won't have any substance to them. That just isn't the case. We have extremely talented people at every rank who really care about the community and want to be the best they can be.

We're seeing and hearing calls for police accountability. At the same time, we've seen an uptick of violent crime. How do we get the balance right between enforcement and prevention?

I think part of what we have to think about is that there are certain thresholds for behaviors we’ll allow. I mean, if you go on the freeway right now, you're probably not getting pulled over if you're five miles over the limit. But everyone can agree that 30 miles over the limit on the freeway is probably way too much. And I think we as a community have to decide the type of response we want.

I think that the current situation in this country, although the violent crime is awful, has created a major opportunity for us in that we are coming out of this process post-George Floyd that has forced the evolution that was required for a long, long time in law enforcement. [That] is a great thing.