Marion Williams whipped around when she passed St. Paul Police Chief Todd Axtell at the Frogtown Annual Celebration Thursday evening.

"Is that the new police chief?" she called out as someone embraced and congratulated Axtell on his first day in the post. "I want to shake his hand!"

The two shook hands, and Williams offered words of encouragement: "You guys are doing a good job."

But afterward, the 69-year-old lifelong St. Paul resident admitted in an interview that she was worried.

"Right now, I don't trust them at all, really," Williams said of police. "I just don't understand why they have to shoot to kill — that's my thing."

Although Axtell takes the reins as the city's 41st police chief with strong support from key community leaders and many of the rank and file, recent local and national incidents involving police and people of color have left an indelible mark on law enforcement. He's acknowledged the challenges ahead of him.

"In some respects, we are a country divided over the role of police officers in our communities," he said on June 13 when Mayor Chris Coleman announced his appointment as chief. "But I also know that St. Paul is a city committed to building and rebuilding connections wherever we can."

So, on his first day as chief, Axtell spent 12 hours running from appointment to appointment, meeting with officers, fielding questions live on Minnesota Public Radio, strategizing with community leaders, speaking at a news conference about sex trafficking, handing out frozen treats to children and shaking hands at three community events.

He also introduced a new leadership structure with one assistant chief overseeing three deputy chiefs, and he began outlining possible changes he hopes will free up officers to spend more time connecting with residents to make deposits, as he likes to say, in "the bank of trust."

"It's an incredible honor," he said of his new job during a 7 a.m. roll call at the Western District offices. "It's not something I take lightly."

The gathering was his first stop Thursday, preceding a 9 a.m. swearing-in ceremony at the mayor's office. He told several officers assembled that the department will be recalibrating its response to minor car accidents, about 10,000 each year, so they can spend less time on related paperwork and more time on proactive community outreach.

He's forming the new "community engagement unit," headed by senior commander John Lozoya.

Repair work

The department has had its share of controversies. It leads the state in the number of fatal officer-involved shootings — 23 since 2000. In January, then-Sgt. Jeff Rothecker posted comments on Facebook urging drivers to run over protesters who planned to march in the streets on Martin Luther King Jr. Day to protest officer-involved shootings. He later resigned.

Axtell acknowledged Thursday that the Rothecker case made a "huge" withdrawal from the bank of trust.

"When those things happen," Axtell said, "all we can do is hold our employees accountable for their actions and apologize to those who were affected."

Axtell, a 27-year veteran of the department, prides himself on the relationships he's formed with community members. The 48-year-old is the city's first white chief in 24 years, taking over at a time when race relations are at the forefront.

Tyrone Terrill, chairman of the African-American Leadership Council of St. Paul, said race won't be an issue if Axtell continues his engagement.

"I talk to black leaders around the country," Terrill said. "Very few of them get phone calls 15 minutes after a shooting in their city. We want a good chief, and Todd, for us, is going to be a good chief."

It doesn't hurt that he was mentored by his three predecessors, who are well-regarded in the community and happen to be black or biracial. Bill Finney, who was chief for 12 years starting in 1992, saw Axtell's potential early.

Finney made the then-twentysomething Axtell his longest-serving executive officer. Axtell served as an emissary at community meetings and spoke on the chief's behalf.

"He was a person you only had to give clear instructions to one time," Finney said. "He had my highest degree of confidence."

'He didn't back down'

It was a quick ascent for Axtell, who joined the force in 1989, and it was in keeping with his upstart mentality.

As a teenager in Brainerd, Axtell scoured garage sales for antiques that he resold at the Nisswa flea market. At 18, the second-degree black belt rented space in a local workout center and opened up his own martial arts school, which helped pay for his law enforcement schooling.

"He just kind of took it upon himself," said his mother, Elaine Axtell.

He got his first police job in 1988 when he spotted a squad car outside a pizza parlor in Pequot Lakes, walked in and introduced himself to the officer inside, Mark Forsberg, who happened to be the police chief.

"He wasn't even old enough to drink," Forsberg recalled. "He carried himself so well."

Axtell began working there part time and also joined the Breezy Point police part time. It was there, Axtell said Thursday, that he learned how to defuse situations with words instead of force.

Standing 5-foot-7, Axtell said, he talked bigger men into complying with the law or an arrest. With just two other officers on the force, he often worked calls alone.

"He didn't back down from anybody," Forsberg said. "I don't care if the guy was 6-foot-8."

Those days are far removed from Axtell's new role as chief of a department of up to 620 officers.

He'll make $151,000 a year, oversee the launch of St. Paul's body camera pilot program later this year, attempt to add women and people of color to the force (he hopes to hire 200 officers during his six-year term) and combat gun violence, partly by directing youth to jobs and extracurricular activities.

Music filled the air about 7:15 p.m. Thursday as Axtell made his way out of a large crowd at Mears Park for the Twin Cities Jazz Festival. Twelve hours after roll call, it was time to sign off.

"It was incredibly fulfilling," Axtell said of his first day on the job. "It was a long day, but it exceeded my expectations."

Twitter: @ChaoStrib