Crime, Law and Justice

Community leaders want new St. Paul chief to bring change, wary of empty promises

Two people stand near a stage facing media.
Mayor Melvin Carter announced Axel Henry as the new St. Paul chief of police on Nov. 1. Community members are looking forward to change in policing but are worried it won't be enough.
Nicole Neri for MPR News

Updated 5:15 p.m.

The man chosen to be the next St. Paul police chief, Axel Henry, was sworn in Wednesday after the City Council approved his nomination. 

Henry, who has been with the St. Paul police department for 24 years, was picked by mayor Melvin Carter out of a field of five finalists.

Like many leaders in the community, the Rev. Runney Patterson with New Hope Baptist Church wants change, but has questions about how much change will happen.

“I believe as a community, as a city, as a state, even as a nation, we have come a long ways, but if we’re being honest, we aren’t there yet,” he said.

There's been a lack of accountability within the department, said Patterson, and certain communities are often treated better than others based on the residents who live there. He said while previous chiefs have acknowledged the need to make changes, promises have not always followed through.

Runney is not alone in wanting change. Chauntyll Allen is the director of criminal justice policy and activism with Wayfinder Foundation. She also started the Black Lives Matter chapter in the Twin Cities. For Allen, people have always been the priority.

Two people speak on a stage.
Raeisha Williams and Chauntyll Allen (right) speak about the legacy of Williams' brother, Tyrone Williams, in front of a poster with his image during a Juneteenth celebration in north Minneapolis in 2020. Tyrone Williams, an activist in Minneapolis, was shot to death in 2018.
Evan Frost | MPR News file

“I mean, I just hope that he [Henry] is community-centered and that he encourages his officers to be community-centered,” said Allen. “I think previously, before the rise of Black Lives Matter, we were dealing with a system that was invasive to the Black and brown community.”

Henry served at the St. Paul police department for 24 years as an officer, sergeant and district commander. The 54-year-old grew up in the Macalester-Groveland area.

But with crime, housing issues and several police shootings in the last several years, people will be relying on more than just Henry’s familiarity with the city.

“My prayer is that we have a department that looks more like our community. I’ll be honest, that was one of the most disappointing things I felt under the past chief,” Patterson said.

Racial diversity within the police department could help build trust between police and the people they interact with, said Patterson.  

A man in a blue sweatshirt.
The Rev. Runney Patterson has been working to curb gun violence in his community. He said in the last 17 years, he performed more than 50 funerals for Black men who died violently in the area.
Evan Frost | MPR News 2021

But Tia Williams-Waller, a community organizer with the Frogtown Neighborhood Association, said equity and representation have become buzzwords. For her, representation goes beyond skin color.

“Just because a person is of color does not mean that they represent under-resourced communities, that they are relative to the conditions and barriers that people live in,” said Williams-Waller. She also said that applies to Carter, the city’s first Black mayor, who chose Henry to be the next head of the police department.  

“He is a man of color but the assumption from I think most of the community members who look like him is that he's never got his lights cut off, or he's never came home and had a foreclosure notice on his door,” she said. “So therefore, he does not have an understanding of what decisions that he's making that is affecting and impacting us, in a very negative way, a harmful way.”

The Rev. Darryl Spence with New Hope Baptist Church says he’s worked with Axel Henry in the past. He says Henry was a good choice for St. Paul, but he has expectations he hopes the chief will meet.

“I would love to see him do retention or something, prepare the next chief, get it where the next chief is ready. I am unequivocally a Black man, I want to see more of me in the leadership roles,” Spence said. “If I see more of me at the top, then I'm not afraid to get in on the bottom.”

A group of people stand in a circle outside of a coffee shop.
Community leaders, from left, Nathaniel Khalig, Dora Jones-Robinson, Rev. Darryl Spence and Melvin Carter Jr. gather outside of a coffee shop in St. Paul to discuss three fatal overnight shootings in 2019. Spence says he has worked with Henry in the past but wants to make sure he follows through on his promises.
Evan Frost | MPR News file

Though there is a long way to go, said Patterson. The progress that’s been made points to a hopefully promising future.

“I guess one of the most disappointing things as a pastor I hear from my parishioners, ain’t nothing gonna change, it ain’t gonna get better,” he said. “But if we didn’t have the leaders that went before us to fight and to stand, [to] be bold enough to keep the issues on the table, then we would not be as far as we are.”

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