As 911 calls in St. Paul reach a historic high and law enforcement across the country faces increased scrutiny, cuts to the capital city's police department next year could mean a smaller and less diverse force, Chief Todd Axtell told City Council members Wednesday.

The tight budget has already caused the city to suspend a police academy this fall.

"Reducing our strength will have direct outcomes," Axtell said. "At a time when police departments have no margin for error, I am certainly concerned about this."

Mayor Melvin Carter's proposed 2021 budget calls for widespread cuts to avoid raising the property tax levy, laying off staff or using emergency reserves.

The council approved a 0% levy increase Wednesday afternoon. The levy is the amount the city collects in property taxes, not the amount individual property owners pay. The police department, like other departments, will have to cut about $1 million to help fill a nearly $20 million budget gap resulting from pandemic-related revenue losses.

In a virtual presentation to council members, Axtell framed the reduction to his department differently: When accounting for the rising costs of operating the department as-is, he said, the actual 2021 cut is about $3.8 million.

Axtell has sounded the alarm about police staffing levels for years, noting that even though the number of sworn officers is higher than ever, the actual number of officers on the street is much lower. In January, a staffing study completed at the council's request recommended hiring more than 100 additional officers and support staff.

But this year's budget conversation, amid an economic crisis and an uptick in violent crime — homicides are now at 24, up from 19 last summer — is different. Carter's proposed budget calls for reducing the police department's sworn strength from 630 to 620.

Citywide belt-tightening meant suspending the police academy this fall, leaving would-be recruits in limbo. They graduated from the city's Law Enforcement Career Path Academy (LECPA), a three-year program that taps young adults to work in the department's community engagement unit while earning their law enforcement degree from Century College.

They are ready to join the department's ranks, but no positions are available. Most have started searching for employment elsewhere. Those eight St. Paul recruits hail from underrepresented groups.

"It's heartbreaking," Axtell said in an interview Monday, saying he fears losing the diverse talent pool his department has worked to cultivate. There's no guarantee the police academy will return next year, Axtell said, which means staffing levels will dip to an estimated 591 sworn officers by the end of 2021 — the lowest point since 2007.

Council members said keeping the LECPA trainees is a priority. Council President Amy Brendmoen described their outreach work in her ward, which has included talking with nonnative English speakers in their first language.

"They are changing the way that people look at our police, and they're changing the way the police look," she said.

But council members also pushed back on Axtell's premise that the $3.8 million budget reduction would have to come at the expense of sworn personnel.

"Is there something that can be iced for a year or two?" Brendmoen asked.

Axtell said the department could make cuts elsewhere but that deferring spending on things like squad cars would lead to higher costs later on. He said he's constantly analyzing the department's budget and noted that, in recent years, he eliminated the motorcycle and mounted patrol units.

"Those are the difficult decisions that have had to have been made," he said.

Emma Nelson • 612-673-4509