One year into his tenure as head of the St. Paul police, Chief Todd Axtell told the City Council about numerous major changes the department has made in how it operates.
Those stories took second place Wednesday to rising concerns about a fast-growing number of 911 calls and gun violence, which the chief identified as a top priority.
The chief reported to the council that the department is changing how it handles mental health crises and how officers in schools interact with students. Police are trying to extend community outreach, he said, and become more transparent — which includes the addition of body cameras at a big cost.
But he said the department's top priority is gun and gang violence.
"Yesterday's fistfights are today's gunfights," Axtell said. "There are way too many guns on the street." He called gun violence a "public health crisis" and said that about 80 percent of gunshot victims are black youths.
That's a problem the police department alone cannot fix, and officers are working with various federal agencies to combat the "anti-snitching culture" where people refuse to talk with police, Axtell said. The whole community needs to come together to deal with crime, he said.
The number of shots fired recently in St. Paul is "totally unacceptable," Council Member Dan Bostrom said.
The city's North End and East Side have been especially plagued by gun violence.
On Sunday, a 2-year-old girl was critically injured when she was struck during a shooting in her North End backyard. "Good things are coming on that case," Axtell said.
North End residents are scared about the crime in the neighborhood, Council Member Dai Thao said. He asked if the police department would add a substation there. Axtell replied that small neighborhood-based substations have not been effective.
In April, the department directed seven officers to focus on reducing crime along the Rice Street corridor in the North End, department spokesman Steve Linders said. But substations are "a really touchy and difficult subject," Axtell said, and officers end up too busy with 911 calls to spend much time at them.
The number of 911 calls grew by nearly 17,000 from 2013 to 2016, Axtell said, and is on track to increase this year. That jump is likely tied to the city's population growth, Council President Russ Stark said.
Council members questioned whether the city needs more officers to deal with more residents. While they have more police than ever, Axtell said he could put additional officers to use but does not have a specific number in mind.
The department plans to add civilian staff members. Assistant Chief Kathy Wuorinen said she expects St. Paul will have 500 body cameras by the end of the year and plans to hire five staffers to handle requests for body and dashboard camera footage. Those staffers, along with camera maintenance, are projected to cost $750,000 annually.
All officers will be trained in mental health crisis intervention by the end of this year, Axtell said; the city wants to connect residents who have mental illnesses with resources rather than criminalize them, he added.
Axtell said the department is responding to concerns about officers in schools. A white officer's forceful arrest of a black teen prompted a walkout at Central High School last year and a student meeting with Mayor Chris Coleman about demands, including racial bias and de-escalation training.
School resource officers made five arrests this school year, compared to 59 last year, Axtell said, and changed their uniforms to look more approachable.