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St. Paul public housing gets more than $7 million from feds

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) on Friday announced that it is allocating nearly $30 million to public housing authorities in Minnesota – including more than $7 million to the Public Housing Agency in St. Paul – to make capital improvements to their properties.

The grants are through HUD’s Capital Fund Program, which offers annual funding to approximately 3,100 public housing authorities across the country to build, repair, renovate and modernize public housing.  These housing authorities use the funding to complete large-scale improvements such as replacing roofs or making energy-efficient upgrades to replace old plumbing and electrical systems.

In St. Paul, money will go to several different projects to modernize units, replace windows and improve elevators, said Dave Lang, construction program manager for the Public Housing Agency. “There is quite a backlog,” he said.

Public Housing Agency – St. Paul owns and manages 4,262 units of public housing in the city, worth approximately $614 million. The agency also administers rental vouchers for another 4,639 housing units through its Section 8 program.

Youth forum on St. Paul police chief search meets tonight

Residents wishing to share their thoughts about St. Paul's effort to find a new police chief can voice their opinions at two upcoming forums.

The city is currently taking applications for a replacement for police Chief Thomas Smith, who will retire this year. Applications are being accepted through Feb. 17, with initial interviews tentatively scheduled for mid-March.

The search comes at a tense time locally and nationally in community-police relations, with police shootings of young black men and other people of color taking center stage. A key essay question applicants must address this time around is their philosophy on police use of force, an issue that wasn't asked in applications during the last two chief searches.

The city's website provides a timeline of the police search, and a link for residents to email in their thoughts about qualities they want to see in the city's next chief.

Residents can also voice their opinions at these two upcoming forums:

St. Paul Youth Services, a non-profit aimed at helping youth in trouble at home or school, or with the law, will hold a forum tonight, Wednesday, Feb. 10, from 6:30 p.m. to 8 p.m. at the Sun Ray Library, 2105 Wilson Ave., in St. Paul. For more information, call 651-771-1301.

The forum is specifically geared toward residents between the ages of 13 and 25. Mayor Chris Coleman and city council president Russ Stark will be in attendance.

Black Lives Matter St. Paul will host a forum on Monday, Feb. 15 from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. at the East Side Enterprise Center, 804 Margaret Ave., in St. Paul. The group's Facebook page lists five key topics on a promotional flyer for the event: body cameras, equal protection under the law, community policing, police brutality and employment practices.

At least three internal candidates have expressed an interest in the job. They are, in alphabetical order:

Assistant Chief Todd Axtell

Assistant Chief Todd Axtell, a 26-year veteran with the department, is the highest-ranking internal candidate and is running for the post. He currently oversees operations, which includes oversight of the three patrol districts (eastern, western and central), the SWAT team, the mounted patrol, the K-9 unit, parking enforcement and other areas.

Axtell's previous assignments include stints in each of the three districts, the gang unit, narcotics and special investigations, among others.

In a recent interview, he said he's worked to build strong relationships with St. Paul's diverse demographic.

Axtell said the department needs to continue to build strong relationships with community members so when controversy arises, there's a level of trust between the two.

"I've often said that ... it's not a matter if something controversial happens, it's when something controversial happens," he said. "We have an obligation that we release as much as we can as soon as we in a transparent way so our community trusts police."

Axtell also said the department needs to continue its work to diversify its ranks. A recent Star Tribune article showed that few officers of color and few female officers attain higher rank or qualify to run for the chief's job.

Commander Colleen Luna

Commander Colleen Luna has said she is considering a run for the office. Luna, a 32-year veteran with the department, is currently assigned to the property crimes unit. Her previous assignments include stints in each district, the crime lab, narcotics, homicide and internal affairs, among others.

Luna also served as an assistant chief in 2003. She ran for the chief post in 2010 and made it through to the final interviews. Smith was eventually selected as chief that year.

Luna said "truth and transparency" are key concerns for her, and that given her time with the internal affairs unit, she's equipped to improve those issues.

"The way the system is set up now, the citizen that makes the complaints [about an officer's conduct] gets very little feedback," Luna said.

She proposed bringing citizens and officers to the table in restorative justice meetings to discuss complaints and concerns.

Luna also said the department needs to mentor and support officers and cultivate a diverse pool of future leaders from within.

Senior Commander Tina McNamara

Senior Commander Tina McNamara

Senior Commander Tina McNamara has been with the department for 23 years, and is now head of the homicide unit, which investigates some of the most serious cases. She has said she's running for the chief's job.

Until recently, the homicide unit investigated its own officer-involved shooting cases. The department announced last month that it will now ask the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA) to investigate whenever one of its officers kills or seriously injures a civilian.

McNamara's previous assignments include time in the eastern and western districts, and stints with narcotics, internal affairs, records and the gang unit, among other posts.

McNamara identified the current wave of community activism as a turning point for police-community relations.

"Our community's engaged right now," she said. "We're at a pivotal point. I'm a leader who can bring us forward."

She cited her mentorship of gang-affiliated youth at the Dayton's Bluff Recreation Center as an eye-opening experience that taught her about second chances.

"These kids wanted to change," said McNamara, who listed one of her mentees as a reference on her resume. "I was impressed that they let me into their circle, into their lives."

McNamara also echoed Luna's concerns about diversity within police ranks, and said more needs to be done to help diverse officers succeed.

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