Rank-and-file police officers in St. Paul tried to distance themselves Friday from the controversial statements issued by union leaders regarding mayoral candidate Melvin Carter, as Chief Todd Axtell and some of his predecessors joined in on the criticism.
They maintain that their discontent is reflective of most officers on St. Paul's 599-member force and that the union, the St. Paul Police Federation, is out of step. But Federation President Dave Titus has held his seat for nearly two decades, regularly crafting the kind of contentious messaging that led to this week's letter and political campaign mailers implicitly linking a recent spate of gun violence and two homicides to the Aug. 15 theft of two handguns from Carter's Summit-University home.
"To a certain extent, we have been lazy in holding our union accountable," said one St. Paul officer who spoke on the condition that he not be named. "I think that your average cop on the street is concentrating on one thing and one thing alone — doing their job well and coming home at the end of their shift."
Faced with a figure like Titus, the officer said, officers might think, " 'I got other things I got to worry about … .' Or, do you say, 'Well, can I really slap the hand that feeds me?' "
Mayor Chris Coleman on Thursday called for the union's executive board to resign. Titus didn't return phone or e-mail messages seeking comment Friday, but issued a written statement taking "full responsibility" for the "political activities of the past week."
"I regret the distraction this has caused during such an important mayoral race and period of violent crime in our City," Titus wrote. "I regret the negative attention this has brought on the Police Federation Executive Committee and membership."
Titus did not state any intention to resign.
Titus has held onto his seat, officers and former chiefs said, through a combination of factors: disinterest from others in pursuing the post, fear of internal recriminations for challenging him, and allegiance to Titus' bulldogged fight to protect officers under investigation for use of force and other incidents. Titus, whose rank is police officer, joined the department in 1994 and is paid $85,301.
"[Titus] took on issues contrary to the administration that other presidents had never done before," said former police chief Bill Finney, who retired in 2004.
Finney said it was his practice to have the department's homicide investigators interview an officer soon after an officer-involved shooting. But Titus wanted to delay access for a day or two.
"That was a unique position that no other federation president had taken," Finney said. "His viewpoint was officers needed some time away from the police department to organize their thoughts. To me, we don't afford that to anybody else in a shooting, so why should a police officer get special considerations?"
Former chief Thomas Smith, who retired in 2016, said Titus was a champion for officers facing discipline. Smith described the relationship between his administration and the union as often "tense," with both sides sometimes at "polar opposite ends of the spectrum" regarding police misconduct.
"When we wanted to hold officers accountable for their actions, there were times the federation came up strongly opposed to my and previous chief's recommendations," Smith said.
The officer who spoke on condition of anonymity acknowledged that the union appropriately advocates for officers on many fronts.
"In general, I'm thankful that the federation exists," the officer said. "However, the types of communications that they release are not representative of the rank-and-file in a lot of cases. They're representative of a very small contingent that sees themselves as the cop's cop — the real cop — when that's just not the case."
Officers and the former chiefs worry that the federation's actions may cause lasting harm with the community, particularly among blacks and members of other minorities. Carter is black, and his campaign denounced the Oct. 24 letter it received from the union as a "racist attack."
"It was inappropriate, and I feel that it was not in the best interest of how we treat victims of crimes in our community," said a second officer who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "Would a white candidate be treated the same under the same circumstances? I don't know how to answer that."
It's unclear if rank-and-file officers will move to unseat Titus or challenge him at the next union election.
"Imagine that you're a police officer trying to unseat Dave Titus," said the first St. Paul officer. "Given the vitriol Dave has given people on the outside, imagine what that's like on the inside."