While announcing the appointment of Todd Axtell to be St. Paul’s 41st police chief, Mayor Chris Coleman called him a man of great “compassion.’’ That quality, among others, will serve the veteran officer well as he steps up to lead Minnesota’s second-largest force amid increased scrutiny of police conduct and accountability.
After nearly 27 years with the force, Axtell appears to be a good fit for the job and is well-prepared to address the department’s toughest issues. He currently serves as assistant chief of operations, overseeing three patrol districts, the SWAT team, the mounted patrol, the K-9 unit, parking enforcement and other areas. He’s done stints at every other police rank in various divisions.
In addition, and perhaps most important, Axtell has a reputation for placing community engagement at the core of his work — whether as a beat cop or in a leadership position. He says that one of his primary philosophies for good police work involves making deposits in the “bank of trust” through positive community-police interactions. With those relationships as a foundation, he believes, residents will trust the department when controversies arise.
Axtell, who is white, has stressed his work with racially and culturally diverse communities as the key to his ability to replace former Chief Thomas Smith, who retired May 10. That’s crucial for a city where the population is 40 percent people of color.
He says his priorities as chief will include combating gun violence, diversifying the force, expanding community outreach and building trust. Throughout his career, he has demonstrated his commitment to that last point.
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, he founded the YWCA Junior Police Academy, which has served more than 500 young people, 95 percent of them people of color.
And as he was appointed on Monday, Axtell pledged to create a community outreach unit — comprising sworn officers, civilian staff members and volunteers — to oversee programs for young people and adults.
Because of his track record, he’ll begin the job with a lot of community support. It speaks volumes that numerous community leaders, including one from Black Lives Matter, endorsed his appointment. He’ll need that support to deal with the many challenges of the job — including officer misconduct, police-involved shootings (St. Paul has had more than other Minnesota departments in recent years), improved staff training, budgeting and implementing the use of body cams.
As a veteran insider, the new chief will have to demonstrate that he can make tough disciplinary and staffing decisions that might not sit well with the police union or former co-workers.
A longtime St. Paul resident who now lives in the Highland Park neighborhood, Axtell was selected over three other internal candidates and a Minneapolis police lieutenant. His appointment is expected to be confirmed by the City Council during a vote on June 22, and he’ll begin in the new position the next day.
We wish him well, and hope St. Paul residents will, too.