St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter jumped onto a chair and turned to face a sea of fed-up residents lining the walls of Central Baptist Church. In a brief speech, he projected a singular message: “I hear you.”
“What I hear you tell me is that we need a new approach,” he told the overflow crowd gathered Thursday night at a community forum on the bloodshed that has beset the city this year. “What I hear you tell me is that we can’t expect our police officers to do everything.”
Carter’s remarks came one day after the city tallied its 29th homicide — the highest number in 25 years. A total that each week inches ever closer to the deadliest year on record — 34 killings in 1992.
“We come into this space right now, I know, with heavy hearts,” he said, adding that he shares residents’ sadness and frustration. “We in St. Paul this year have lost too many lives.”
Carter has joined law enforcement leaders in calling the shootings a “public health crisis,” and he urged residents to take an active role in helping solve it. Several hundred came to the church to do just that, gathering at dozens of circular tables to brainstorm ways to curb the violence. Turnout was so high that some people spilled into the lobby and officials were forced to open the sanctuary for the overflow.
Tiffini Flynn Forslund, a teacher at Minneapolis’ Friendship Academy of the Arts, moderated discussions at her table. She floated an idea — requiring 12-year-olds to complete a firearm safety course — not unlike what’s needed for a hunting license.
“Then they’d understand how the weapon works and just how dangerous they are,” she said. Right now, juveniles “shoot these guns and have no idea of the impact.”
The unprecedented level of gun violence has wounded 145 people this year and sent shock waves through the community. Carter and Police Chief Todd Axtell each have characterized the uptick in shootings as an “anomaly,” but that hasn’t satisfied some residents who frequently hear gunfire in their neighborhoods.
“It happens before the community has a chance to heal from the last tragedy,” said Michelle Lee Parker, who works with grieving families. “So the trauma just keeps compounding.”
Elijah Norris Holliday, 23, who tagged along with his grandfather, has lost several acquaintances to shootings in recent weeks. A day earlier, his colleague Da’Qwan Jones-Morris was accidentally shot to death in his own home by two friends playing around with a stolen firearm.
Jones-Morris, 17, worked as a cook at Holliday’s father’s restaurant, Top Dog, in West St. Paul. “He seemed like a good kid with a strong head on his shoulders,” said Holliday, who lives in the Midway neighborhood.
He questioned how juveniles get their hands on weapons in the first place, especially when they’re not old enough to buy them. The immediate solutions aren’t clear, he said, but he expressed concern about the influence of “hip-hop culture.”
“Having more police could help, but it’s not the end-all, be-all,” Holliday said. “Just adding 10 extra cops on the streets won’t prevent these shootings.”
Policing tactics are also under debate at City Hall, where Carter is weighing whether to cut five police officer positions from St. Paul’s 2020 budget. He has suggested scaling back the nine new officer positions he proposed last year to four, noting the Police Department budget would still increase by $4.5 million.
Meanwhile, Axtell has turned to the FBI for assistance in solving homicides. Axtell says his detectives have become so burned out by the pace of the killings that several officers are being temporarily reassigned from the local FBI Safe Streets Task Force to help inside the homicide and special investigations units. The FBI, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), and U.S. Marshals Service all plan to provide extra resources to the city.
The Rev. Troy Wilson, lead pastor at the St. Paul host church, blamed what he called the breakdown of the African-American family. Gangs can become an attractive option for juveniles without strong male role models at home, he said.
“It makes for a culture that has no respect for authority,” said Wilson, who is black. “We don’t hold each other accountable.”
A few others turned their ire toward the mayor as he roamed the room, occasionally joining small groups as they voiced how violent crime has affected their lives.
Community members asked for more ShotSpotter technology to help detect gunfire. Demanded more jobs. Called for increased policing.
“I’m fed up,” an exasperated woman told Carter. “You don’t return my calls.”
A man beside her told Carter that young people who commit gun crimes need a lesson in dignity.
The mayor mostly nodded his head and listened, promising to take everyone’s suggestions back to City Hall — where he’ll weigh a supplemental public safety proposal.
“This is about me hearing you talk,” he said.