St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter is still skeptical of police Chief Todd Axtell’s request for 50 new police officers — but that doesn’t mean he’s ruled out hiring new officers altogether.
In an interview Tuesday, Carter said he’s considering the chief’s request alongside other city needs as he crafts a budget to submit to the City Council in August. On June 20, Axtell told council members that he wants to hire 50 new officers, and they expressed support. Two days later, Carter published a Facebook post criticizing the chief’s plan.
“I think it’s important that we understand, especially for a proposal of that magnitude, what hiring that many police officers would do in regard to our ability to add programming in our recreation centers and our libraries and things like that, because obviously there’s a limited ability to do everything,” Carter said Tuesday.
“My perspective is certainly not that police are bad for a community — it’s that we have to build a full portfolio.”
In a statement Saturday in response to Carter’s Facebook post, Axtell said he respects the mayor and supports his vision for St. Paul.
“The Mayor will set our budget and I will continue to lead our department to achieve our mutual goals,” the chief said.
Axtell’s staffing request, made during his annual report to the City Council, would add 50 new officers over two years. He described the staffing increase in tandem with a proposal for a program that would require all new officers to spend six months in the department’s community engagement unit before responding to 911 calls.
“That six-month investment will pay dividends for a 30-year career of every police officer,” he said. “That is a huge game-changer for policing in St. Paul.”
Carter said he and Axtell discussed the hiring request before Axtell’s report to the council, and the chief was aware of Carter’s reservations before Carter posted about them on Facebook Friday evening. The disagreement hasn’t affected their relationship, Carter said.
“This isn’t Washington, D.C.,” he said. “We can disagree with each other and still have a perfectly fine relationship at the same time.”
Axtell told City Council members that 911 calls are up in St. Paul and residents have complained about slow response times. At current staffing levels, he said, the department can’t spare officers for six months in the community engagement unit.
On Tuesday, Carter said he doesn’t see community engagement as just a six-month commitment.
“I don’t want to make a separation to say ‘First, you’re going to learn about community and engage community, and then you’re going to go patrol,’ ” he said. “I want to say the job of a police officer is to be in, to learn from, to build trust and to work in close partnership with community — not just in the first six months of your career, but that’s what the role of a police officer is, period.”
The mayor also isn’t convinced that the department is understaffed. He referred to 2016 data from the Governing magazine website, which shows that for U.S. cities with populations between 200,000 and 500,000, the average number of police officers per 10,000 residents was 18.7.
The St. Paul police department is currently at an all-time staffing high of 626 sworn officers, or about 20 officers per 10,000 residents.
“Obviously, adding 50 more of them would bring us way above that,” Carter said. “I don’t believe that the underlying challenges that we have with our city right now boil down to ‘we don’t have enough police officers.’ ”
Still, Carter did not rule out including money for more officers in his 2019 budget. Final budget decisions will come after more community input, he said.
“We’re not adjudicating whether in St. Paul we’re pro-police or anti-police,” Carter said. “We are working together to find the right balance of investment that we need to make for a well-rounded community.”