A St. Paul police commander who has climbed through the ranks during nearly a quarter-century in the department will be the city's next chief.

Axel Henry, commander of St. Paul's narcotics, financial intelligence and human trafficking division, is Mayor Melvin Carter's choice to succeed Todd Axtell, who retired in June.

Carter made his announcement inside City Hall, with city and community leaders in attendance. Henry's selection follows a selection process spanning five months by a citizen-led search committee.

With Henry standing over his left shoulder, the mayor said, "Getting this right was far more important than getting it fast."

Henry, a native of St. Paul who graduated from the city's public schools, said that he was "basically raised by this city" and that he understands the gravity of the role.

"My 24 years in the St. Paul Police Department have offered me great opportunities, but honestly all of those opportunities are really, truly responsibilities, and none is greater than the current one before me," he said.

Henry acknowledged that the city has experienced "a lot of challenges over the years, and nothing more challenging than the last few years for certain."

"But this now an opportunity for us; it's an opportunity for us to all come together as a community," he said. "We can co-produce a public safety strategy for this city that can be a role model for the entire country."

The 54-year-old Henry's selection now awaits City Council approval. According to St. Paul communications director Emily Buss, that vote may happen Nov. 16. The new chief will be paid within a range of $130,000 to $182,000 a year, based on his experience and qualifications. If approved, Henry would take the helm for a six-year term.

The new chief will inherit a department prioritizing its gun violence prevention and response efforts, a reaction to escalating crime trends in recent years. Carter has proposed a 2023 budget of $130 million for the department, which continues to face a staffing shortage in the wake of a pandemic hiring freeze and uptick in officer departures.

Henry, who earned degrees from the University of St. Thomas, joined the St. Paul Police Department in 1998 as an officer before earning promotions to sergeant, commander and senior commander, according to his resume. He didn't want to be a police officer at first, but Henry said he was drawn to the role because "I wanted to serve something bigger than myself."

B Kyle, president and CEO of the St. Paul Area Chamber, said Henry is a seasoned veteran and she looks forward to working with him.

"Public safety is a top priority for St. Paul and fundamental to building vitality in our community. Renewing our focus on improving public safety, while building trust and respect in the community seems more important than ever," Kyle said in a statement. "With his experience and perspective, Chief Henry is well-positioned to continue building on the culture that he's now charged with leading and we are here to support him."

Among Henry's leading accomplishments with the Police Department, he lists heading its body-worn camera program and 20 years of service as a trainer and use-of-force expert.

Henry lives in St. Paul's Little Bohemia neighborhood. His partner, Mikeya Griffin, is the executive director of the Rondo Community Land Trust, which works to provide affordable housing and commercial opportunities for people with low or moderate income.

Henry said his father was an English professor at Macalester College who eventually became that department's chair. His mother worked in public health, but Henry says she was "out of the picture" when he was 11. From that time on, he said, adoptive mother figures across the city helped to raise him.

According to his personnel file, Henry has worked throughout the city in various ranks and capacities. His file contains three disciplinary actions — two for preventable accidents and one for violating department policy — along with more than two dozen commendations.

The other finalists for the job were:

  • Jacqueline Bailey-Davis, a 25-year veteran of the Philadelphia Police Department now serving as police staff inspector in the standards and accountability division/audits and inspections unit.
  • Pamela Barragan, St. Paul police's unit commander for community partnerships.
  • Kurtis Hallstrom, senior commander of St. Paul's eastern district.
  • Stacy Murphy, St. Paul's assistant chief of police.

Carter appointed Jeremy Ellison, formerly a deputy police chief overseeing support services and administration, to serve as interim chief once Axtell retired. Ellison did not apply for the permanent role.

Axtell applauded the news Tuesday, praising the new police chief in a tweet.

"Axel is an excellent choice, bringing a wealth of experience, a track record of success and strong community relationships with him to the job," Axtell's tweet read. "And perhaps most importantly, he knows and understands the city, its people and its needs."

Only two candidates from outside the department have been hired as chief in the past century, according to the St. Paul Police Historical Society.

When asked about how he would lead St. Paul police if approved by the City Council, Henry said he would work to regain trust with the community.

"We want to have a process where everyone feels confident and understands their role in it, and the only way you do that is to communicate and build relationships," Henry said, adding that the department would search for new ways to deter violent crime. "We're building that airplane while we fly it, because we can't wait around for the perfect scenario to present itself or wait around for the right amount of people or processes or whatever to be in place."

In late September, Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey nominated a veteran law enforcement official from Newark, N.J. — whom he heralded as a "change-maker" — to be the city's next police chief. The appointment of Frey's pick, Brian O'Hara, will be contingent on approval from the Minneapolis City Council.