The St. Paul Police Department proposed a $130 million budget for 2023, with plans to address gun violence and staffing shortages that interim Police Chief Jeremy Ellison said have reached a critical point.

"Nothing about our current staffing challenge is typical. … This is just unprecedented times," Ellison told the City Council on Wednesday, noting that the roughly 550-officer force is down 64 officers. "There are things that we're not doing today that we would have been doing if we were at full staff."

Ellison's proposed 2023 budget is $2 million more than what the department was allocated for 2022. Mayor Melvin Carter has proposed a $782 million budget for 2023, of which police spending would make up nearly 17%.

Last year was the most violent on record in Minneapolis and St. Paul, with a record-setting 38 homicides in the capital city. This year, St. Paul police data show that while fewer firearms have been recorded discharged, more people have been hurt. To date, 190 St. Paul residents have been injured by gunfire this year, compared with 160 at this time last year.

"We can't operate effectively with the [staffing] numbers that we've had for the last two years, and everything's getting worse as a result — including the stress on our officers," Council Member Jane Prince said. "I appreciate that we're now finally doing something about it."

The presentation was Ellison's first — and likely only — budget proposal as the force's temporary leader. After former Chief Todd Axtell retired in June, Ellison took over the department, which is facing simultaneous demands to curb violent crime and invest in alternative public safety efforts.

On Sept. 6, a search committee narrowed the list of candidates vying to be the new chief from 18 to nine. The group plans to select five finalists on Oct. 3 to present to Carter, who has said he hopes to appoint a new chief this fall.

Axtell made waves during his final year in office by publicly urging Carter to increase police compensation and staffing, which took a hit thanks to a pandemic hiring freeze and uptick in departures.

Since then, St. Paul onboarded its largest-ever class of police recruits, a group of 53 cadets who finished their training over the summer. Twenty-five more cadets started the police academy in August, and the city plans to hire an additional academy class in December.

But the force's number of sworn officers still hovers well below its authorized strength of 619. As of Wednesday, the department had 555 officers plus the 25 in training, who will be fully eligible for duties by April.

The department's 2023 budget proposal includes funding to hire two additional academies, thanks in part to a grant from the U.S. Department of Justice and federal American Rescue Plan dollars. If approved, the department's roster of full-time employees — which includes civilian staff — would grow from 763 to 782.

"It's going to take time," Ellison said. "But I'm confident with the fact that we do have a great department. People do still want to come here and work."

Recruiting remains a challenge for police departments across the country, but officials said they hope a wage bump for St. Paul officers will provide more incentive to those considering joining the force. This month the council approved a new union contract that gives officers 9.5% raises spread over three years.

"I'm pleased to see that there's an actual increase proposed in our budget. I think it's necessary to continue to do the work that we should be doing and that the community expects of us," St. Paul Police Federation President Mark Ross said.

Diversity and engagement

Diversifying the police department and increasing community engagement are two other top goals for 2023, Ellison said.

Progress in those areas could help St. Paul rein in gun violence, he said, pointing to the police's newly created ASPIRE unit, a group of eight officers and two sergeants focused on connecting victims of violence with resources.

ASPIRE is part of a larger push to prevent crime in St. Paul by addressing its root causes, a charge that's being led by the city's new Office of Neighborhood Safety. The effort — a pillar of Carter's administration — has been dubbed Project PEACE and is being funded by $10 million in American Rescue Plan dollars.

Some uncertainties plague the budget proposal, including inflation and lingering costs associated with the trials of the former Minneapolis police officers involved in the death of George Floyd. Ellison said St. Paul police spent $3.6 million on salaries, services and materials on the east metro response plan ahead of Derek Chauvin's 2021 state trial and another $1.1 million on the federal trial of the other ex-officers in 2022.

St. Paul is seeking reimbursement to help cover those expenses but has not yet received answers from the state and federal governments, Ellison said.