A month to the day after George Floyd's killing by a Minneapolis police officer, St. Paul Police Chief Todd Axtell told city leaders that many of the public safety reforms that people across the country are calling for are already in place in Minnesota's capital city.
"We support the idea of police reform, and in fact, we have been engaged in it for the past four years," Axtell told City Council members during a remote meeting Thursday.
Calling his officers the best in the country, Axtell outlined changes that have been made since he became chief in 2016 — including increasing the diversity of the department, rewriting the use-of-force policy, banning "warrior training" and establishing a mental health unit — while also pushing back on the idea of defunding or dismantling the department at a time when violent crime is on the rise.
Axtell said he would like officers to have the time to both respond to emergency calls and to get out of their squad cars and build relationships with the community; ideally, he said, new officers would spend six months in the community engagement unit after graduating from the police academy.
But that would require resources the department doesn't have, Axtell said. To follow the frequently cited police reform model of Camden, N.J., St. Paul would need 1,600 officers and a $280 million budget, he said. The department's $126 million 2020 budget provided for a sworn force of 630.
The chief's presentation came as the council stares down a projected multimillion-dollar deficit in 2020 and a lean budget year in 2021.
Most council members on Thursday expressed support for the department, but there were also questions about racial profiling by officers and the department's response to the recent civil unrest in the wake of Floyd's killing, particularly from City Council members Mitra Jalali and Nelsie Yang, who have publicly said they support abolishing police.
"Most of the people in power don't have to fear for their life or the life of someone they love while we wait for all these reforms to take place," Jalali said.
Axtell defended St. Paul officers and their response to the unrest. He also said St. Paul has unfairly been dubbed one of the nation's deadliest police departments, noting that there have been four police-involved deaths since he took office in 2016, compared with five in Minneapolis, 14 in Orlando, Fla., and 24 in St. Louis, Mo.
"Obviously all incidents are tragic, but St. Paul certainly does not warrant this label," Axtell said.
When Council Member Chris Tolbert asked Axtell what reforms he would still like to see, the chief pointed to the arbitration process, which is governed by state law.
Shortly after becoming chief, Axtell fired an officer who kicked an innocent bystander three times while a police dog dragged the bystander in circles; an arbitrator later ruled that the officer should be allowed back on the force. Last summer, Axtell fired five officers for failing to intervene while a former officer beat a man with a baton; so far, arbitrators have upheld two of those firings, he said.
Axtell said Thursday that he would like to see a new arbitration process that would allow the department to appeal overturned firings in court.