When the daily briefing with the governor was done, St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter jumped in the car, pulled off his cloth face mask and looked into his camera phone. The former vice president was waiting.
Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, had brought four mayors together to discuss the aftermath of George Floyd’s death at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer. As Carter appeared on the video call alongside his counterparts in Atlanta, Chicago and Los Angeles, Biden brought up the idea of creating a police force that personally knows the community it serves. He wondered aloud if such a scenario is a pipe dream.
“No, that’s not a pipe dream at all,” Carter responded. “One of the things that we’re finding is our residents are very willing, if there’s an avenue, to speak up and protest peacefully. What they’re not willing to do is return to quiet.”
In the days since protests erupted around the world in response to Floyd’s death, Carter has kept up a constant conversation with other elected officials and the public about what’s happening in the Twin Cities and what happens next, including in his own Police Department. In addition to conversations with Biden and mayors across the country, Carter has made numerous national media appearances.
Black mayors across the country are getting similar requests, said McKinley Price, mayor of Newport News, Va., and president of the African American Mayors Association, of which Carter is a member. Like Carter, Price said the conversations are exhausting, but necessary.
“It is, I think, paramount that we take advantage of where people are in their mind-set, because I think everybody thinks it’s now time to do something,” Price said.
By necessity, the conversation in St. Paul is not just about what happened in Minneapolis. Though public safety reform has been a focal point during Carter’s time in office, local activists — and some who served in his administration — have criticized his police accountability record. Unlike Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey, however, Carter hasn’t come under the same pressure to dismantle or defund the Police Department.
Minneapolis City Council Vice President Andrea Jenkins, who represents the ward where Floyd was killed and is among the council members who’ve pledged to “begin the process of ending the Minneapolis Police Department,” said in an interview that she hopes his death will spur change in St. Paul.
“There is no institution in Minneapolis or St. Paul that is not a racist institution,” she said. “Let me be real clear: Everybody needs to clean up their house.”
Carter has not said explicitly whether he supports cutting the Police Department budget or eliminating the force. Instead, he has pointed to the work his administration has already done to change when and how officers use force and direct more money toward community-based alternatives to traditional policing.
“We cannot continue with a public safety framework in America that’s centered around fear-based rhetoric,” Carter said.
The son of a retired St. Paul police officer, Carter ran for mayor in 2017 on a platform that included public safety reform. The city DFL convention that year happened the day after the acquittal of Jeronimo Yanez, the officer who shot and killed Philando Castile in a suburb north of St. Paul.
Since Carter took office in 2018, the Police Department has updated its use of force policy, launched a mental health unit and limited the use of K-9s. Last year, the City Council passed a $1.7 million public safety budget focused on community initiatives rather than hiring more cops, though investments have been slow to unfold, in part because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The city has also lost two top staffers focused on police accountability — including one who reached a $250,000 settlement after filing a complaint with the state Human Rights Department — and has struggled to make its police civilian review board effective. A year ago, five officers were fired for failing to intervene the previous summer when a former officer beat another man with a baton.
Carter said St. Paul leaders have committed “pretty steadfastly” to public safety reform in the past few years. He also said there’s more to be done — in state law, in the legal system and in police union contracts “that make it so difficult to hold officers accountable when they fall below the standard that we’ve set.”
Carter and Police Chief Todd Axtell have presented a united front, appearing together to announce curfews and address the destruction that ravaged St. Paul as some protests turned violent. The chief, too, has been called on to provide reaction and analysis for a national audience.
“Now’s our moment to move forward together; use this tragedy as an opportunity to do what’s been needed to be done for many, many years,” he told CNN on June 3.
Axtell has already convened his leadership team, with Carter’s support, to clarify the department’s use-of-force policy, said spokesman Steve Linders.
Council members say they’re hearing from constituents and activists who want St. Paul to defund or dismantle its Police Department and plan to meet with police leaders June 25 to discuss next steps. While most say they want to build on investments they’ve already made in community-based alternatives to policing, Council Members Mitra Jalali and Nelsie Yang said they support abolishing the Police Department altogether — though Jalali emphasized that won’t happen overnight.
For Carter, the first black mayor in a city where only 16% of residents are black, there will be challenges that his counterparts in historically black cities do not face, said Duchess Harris, an American studies professor at Macalester College.
“The important thing for people to note is what it means when a black mayor has leadership in what is essentially a white city,” she said. “That’s what St. Paul has to come to terms with. Can they listen to this black man?”