Growing up in a Northfield mobile home park, Todd Axtell's hero was his late grandfather, who served as a police officer in Silver Bay, Minn.
Axtell was determined to be like him, earning his law enforcement degree after high school and launching his career in small-town police departments before joining the St. Paul Police Department in 1989. From there, he quickly ascended the ranks to become one of its highest-ranking officers.
On Monday, Mayor Chris Coleman announced Axtell as his pick to become St. Paul's 41st police chief — a post the boy from humble beginnings never dreamed was possible.
"It never occurred to me that I could be the St. Paul police chief," Axtell said as he accepted the mayor's endorsement. "I was just a kid from Silver Bay. My father was a draftsman. My mother, a hairdresser. And we really didn't have a whole lot when we started out at a trailer park in Northfield."
Axtell paused briefly before speaking about the man who inspired a lifetime of civil service.
"So, now I follow my dreams as to one of the noblest professions that I can imagine, in the footsteps of my grandfather …," said Axtell, who was 2 when his grandfather died. "I think my grandpa [would] be really proud today."
Axtell, 48, beat out three other internal candidates and a Minneapolis police lieutenant to earn Coleman's recommendation. The City Council will have to approve Axtell's appointment with a one-time vote scheduled for June 22 before he starts a six-year term — a foregone conclusion given the quorum of council members who stood alongside him during Coleman's announcement. If approved, Axtell will begin his new position on June 23.
Axtell currently serves as assistant chief of operations, overseeing three patrol districts (eastern, western and central), the SWAT team, the mounted patrol, the K-9 unit, parking enforcement and other areas.
The Highland Park resident has served at every other rank in his 27 years with the St. Paul police, previously working stints in each of the three districts, the gang unit, narcotics and special investigations, among others.
Coleman said that in choosing the next chief, he looked for three characteristics: a candidate who could lead the department through difficult situations, someone who understood the importance of community input, and a chief who could adopt new policies and methodologies.
While all five finalists possessed those qualities, Coleman said, Axtell excels.
"He has built incredible relationships in the community," Coleman said. "He is a man of tremendous compassion."
Axtell has stressed his work with diverse community groups as the key to his ability to replace former Chief Thomas Smith, who retired May 10.
Earlier this year, Axtell helped to secure a two-year, $500,000 grant from the Otto Bremer Trust to continue and expand outreach programs, many of them geared toward communities of color.
In 2007, Axtell founded the YWCA Junior Police Academy, which has served more than 500 young people, 95 percent of them people of color. He pledged Monday that as chief, he'll create a community outreach unit — comprising sworn officers, civilian staff members and volunteers — that will oversee programs for young people and adults.
One of Axtell's primary philosophies is the concept of making deposits in the "bank of trust" through positive community-police interactions, so that when controversies arise, residents will have faith in the department, its leaders and its processes.
Those programs and ties are also important in recruiting officers of color. Axtell, who is white, said diversifying the sworn staff, which numbers about 604, is a key goal. Officers of color currently make up 19 percent of the force, compared with 44 percent citywide.
Jeff Martin, president of the St. Paul chapter of the NAACP, said Axtell has worked hard to connect with community members.
"I think they've got the best person for the job," he said.
Moment of silence
The mayor's announcement Monday was preceded by a moment of silence for the victims of the nation's largest mass shooting in Orlando.
During a question-and-answer session, Axtell assured residents that St. Paul police are prepared to handle crisis situations. Three hundred of the department's officers completed "hostile event response" training in April and May, he said.
In an interview later, Axtell said that the department has a "very close" relationship with federal authorities and that it receives appropriate information. He also said his No. 1 priority is combating gun violence through prevention, intervention and enforcement. Other goals include sharing "as much information as we possibly can" with the public about crimes, police data and the department, he added.
As chief, Axtell will oversee a force of up to 615 sworn officers and 157 civilian personnel, and an annual budget of $109 million. The post will pay $114,483.20 to $160,600 annually, depending on experience, with a benefits package, according to a January job posting.