When St. Paul resident Brendan Miller heard the city was hiring a new police chief, he felt compelled to speak up in the hope of helping craft a better, more culturally sensitive police force for his children.
Three fatal shootings by officers in the past year — two involving people of color — and a veteran sergeant’s recent online rant urging drivers to run over protesters have sapped his trust in the department.
“It does seem like there needs to be a cultural overhaul,” said Miller, a father who recently adopted a 7-year-old from Ghana. He was one of more than 100 residents who responded to a city-issued online survey about the next chief.
Choosing someone to replace Chief Thomas Smith, who is retiring this year, is one of the most important decisions facing St. Paul, and city employees are canvassing the community in hopes of getting it right. That chief, who is expected to start work in June, will be tasked with building community trust as activists across the Twin Cities and nation train a critical eye on police practices. For instance, the job posting asks candidates to weigh in on police use of force — a topic that was not raised in essays during the last two chief searches.
Three internal candidates have voiced interest in the post overseeing up to 615 sworn officers, 157 civilian staff and an annual operating budget of $109 million. Although the city hasn’t hired an outsider since about 1900, a Minneapolis sergeant may apply.
A group of 32 community members, including representatives of civil rights, mental health and neighborhood groups, will meet over the next several months to narrow down the job applicants to five finalists. Mayor Chris Coleman will select his top choice from the five finalists, and forward that candidate to the City Council for approval.
In the online surveys, residents urged city officials to pick someone who is committed to transparency.
City employees are also soliciting input at events and sites around town. Two human resources staff members went table-to-table at Hmong Village on Thursday, asking patrons drinking boba tea and eating pho about the job search.
The next chief needs to ensure police are building trust and positive relationships in the community, said Bee Yang, 24.
“They’re there to serve us and protect us,” Yang said.
Increasing police diversity
One of the city’s priorities will be increasing diversity in the police department.
Council Member Dai Thao said at a recent equity discussion that the department does not have enough higher-ranking officers of color.
The department had 601 sworn officers as of late 2015, 111 of them — about 18 percent — officers of color.
There are 130 white officers who have attained the rank of sergeant, a step above officer, and 10 sergeants of color.
Only three officers of color have attained a higher rank than sergeant: A Hispanic commander, a Hispanic assistant chief and a black chief — Smith, who is multiracial.
That’s a “huge gap,” Thao said, with the makeup of the city, where about 40 percent of residents are people of color.
Things don’t look much better for women in the department; there are 98 female officers, about 16 percent of the force.
The police chief job posting says candidates must have a proven record of working with a racially diverse community and increasing diversity in the department. It’s a key issue for many residents and community organizers as well.
“We need someone who’s going to connect with the community,” not an “overseer,” said Rashad Turner, lead organizer for Black Lives Matter St. Paul.
An inside hire?
In the department’s infancy — it was founded in 1854 — military men from Fort Snelling often leveraged their service into winning the chief’s seat. Outsiders haven’t been able to replicate that since then.
Three internal candidates have voiced interest in running for the post. Assistant Chief Todd Axtell and Senior Commander Tina McNamara said they will apply for the job. Commander Colleen Luna said she’s interested but is still weighing her options.
Senior Commander Shari Gray, head of the internal affairs unit, considered running but bowed out of contention on Friday.
Gray, Luna, McNamara and Assistant Chief Kathy Wuorinen are the only women in the department who meet the rank and experience requirements to apply for the job. All of St. Paul’s police chiefs have been men. Assistant Chief Bill Martinez, who applied for the job in 2010, is the department’s only officer of color who qualifies to apply. He did not return a message seeking comment.
The only local outsider who has emerged as a possible challenger — Minneapolis police Lt. Eddie Frizell, who is black — said he’s considering a run.
Each internal candidate has held myriad key posts within the department over their long careers. Axtell is considered a strong contender this time around by many within the department, and is endorsed by Gray.
Axtell is the only internal candidate who lives in St. Paul; he calls Highland Park home. Luna lives in Inver Grove Heights and said she would move to St. Paul if chosen as chief. McNamara said she lives in Mendota Heights for family reasons but spends 80 percent of her time in St. Paul and is only two miles away.
Luna applied for the chief position both times it last came up — 2004 and 2010 — and advanced as a finalist for the mayor’s consideration both times. In the final rounds of the 2010 search, she went toe-to-toe with Axtell, Martinez and Chief Smith, who was ultimately selected.
Applications are being accepted through Feb. 17, with initial interviews tentatively scheduled for mid-March.