St. Paul Police Chief Todd Axtell said he expects to hire 50 or 60 police recruits to start training this fall, but the department's pool of applicants is half of what it was five years ago.

Amid unprecedented scrutiny of law enforcement, including calls to reform or replace it entirely, police chiefs say they are seeing fewer men and women seeking to join the force. St. Paul received 178 applications from eligible candidates for its police academy this year — down 51% from the 366 the city got in 2016.

"This is an incredibly challenging calling," Axtell said. "And now, when you add in the dynamic of a significant amount of vitriol toward police in our community, it's a detriment to people who in the past have taken the calling. They are now thinking twice about doing the job."

A surge in violent crime in Minnesota's capital city has led Axtell and others to push for hiring officers to replace those retiring or leaving for other reasons. The chief has at times clashed with Mayor Melvin Carter over maintaining staffing levels at the St. Paul Police Department.

In an interview Monday, Carter said he does not know how many recruits St. Paul will ultimately hire but said the upcoming police academy could be "one of our largest ever."

Carter said the decline in this year's applicants doesn't concern him because he has not received any indication that filling St. Paul's openings this year will be a problem.

"Frankly, I think we've had a shift in the last year in what we expect of police officers," he said. "… If those shifts have made the profession less attractive to certain individuals, that actually might be a positive shift."

The mayor cut department budgets across St. Paul in 2021 to make up for COVID-related revenue losses. The Police Department was allocated about $104.7 million of the city's general fund, about a $800,000 decrease from the previous year — though an additional $3.7 million will be cut through attrition, Axtell has said.

The St. Paul Police Department is authorized to employ 620 officers, but Axtell said 580 will be on the payroll by the end of the month. And roughly 30 of those officers are not available to work due to military deployments, sick time and other leave.

Police spokesman Steve Linders said that the department recently moved 20 officers to patrol from specialty units — including the gang and gun, narcotics and traffic divisions.

"We're a very lean Police Department right now as far as resources go," Axtell said.

St. Paul canceled its police academy for new officers in 2020 because of funding constraints.

Over the last two years, Carter has invested more than $2 million in "community-first" public safety programs, some of which have been slow to roll out. The initiatives — which include funding for recreation centers, community ambassadors and a youth employment program — aim to "lighten the load for our officers" and allow them to focus on the city's most serious crimes, he said.

Carter also created a commission late last year to rethink how the city responds to the lowest-priority 911 calls. That group will present its recommendations to the City Council on Wednesday morning.

The mayor said he anticipates a "significant portion" of St. Paul's $166 million federal American Rescue Plan dollars to be spent on public safety, but he said it's too early to say how.

"Everything is on the table with regards to public safety," Carter said.

Mark Ross, president of the St. Paul Police Federation, sat on the mayor's latest commission along with activists, elected officials, neighborhood representatives and others. He said while he's supportive of non-police efforts to curb crime, the city also needs resources to respond to calls quickly and effectively.

"If we get to the point where these things aren't happening as frequently and we're not needed as much, that's the time where you reduce the policing," he said. "Not in the midst of record numbers of shootings, aggravated assaults and homicides."

Katie Galioto • 612-673-4478