St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter asked the City Council for nearly $1.7 million in public safety funding on Wednesday amid disagreement with his police chief over how to best fight a 25-year high in gun violence.
In a rare presentation to the council, Carter outlined a wide-ranging proposal that would use a “community-first” approach to confront what he calls a public health crisis. It would task city departments and outside groups with expanding youth employment, encourage landlords to rent to people with criminal histories and launch a communications center for sharing information about public safety downtown, among other steps.
Together, Carter said the initiatives “represent perhaps the most comprehensive approach to public safety and crime prevention that our city has ever taken.”
The size of the police force would remain unchanged from Carter’s proposal earlier this year — five fewer officers than were authorized in 2018.
“I cannot pretend that a difference of five police officers can fundamentally transform public safety outcomes in a city of over 300,000 people,” Carter said.
City and police officials have grappled with an outbreak of shootings that has left 30 people dead and put neighborhoods on edge. At the same time, tensions have become increasingly evident between the mayor and Chief Todd Axtell, who has called for increased staffing and money for gunshot-detection technology.
“I appreciate Mayor Carter taking a long-term approach to addressing the root causes of gun violence in our city, and I look forward to reviewing the details of the plan once I receive a copy,” said Axtell, who was notably absent as other department heads attended the mayor’s presentation.
Carter assured council members Wednesday that Axtell had input on the final proposal.
According to police department e-mails first obtained and reported by the Pioneer Press, Axtell asked for nearly $250,000 in the 2020 budget to pay for gunshot-detection technology, but Carter did not include it in his August budget proposal.
The e-mails show that Axtell for months continued to advocate for ShotSpotter, which uses acoustic sensors to pinpoint the origin of gunshots. In a Nov. 7 e-mail, Axtell pointed to other cities, from Minneapolis to Chicago to Little Rock, Ark., that “are seeing very real and very measurable results from this use of technology.”
“More than one-half of the cities with ShotSpotter experienced a reduction of more than 21% in their gunfire rates,” Axtell wrote. “Many of these cities have expanded their service areas since initial deployment — some of them multiple times.”
Carter remained unswayed.
“I appreciate your desperation to identify every tool to reduce and eliminate gun violence in our city,” Carter replied. “[But] I’m going to push past anecdote/rhetoric and sales gimmicks to invest in innovative approaches that are backed by data and evidence.”
Minneapolis began using ShotSpotter in 2006, when the city faced a 35% spike in violent crime. Within months, then-Chief Tim Dolan credited the coffee-can-sized sensors with slashing response times and helping investigators track down suspects who otherwise would have escaped.
This year, the software covers 3.3 square miles of the city and has detected more than 1,600 incidents, said police spokesman John Elder.
“We understand that ShotSpotter is a just a tool,” he said. “However, it’s been a tool that’s proven effective — not only for response but in investigations.”
The $1.5 million Carter is requesting would bring the overall public safety budget — including both the police and fire departments — to more than $175 million. The additional investment would bring the 2020 tax levy increase to nearly 6%. The City Council will approve the final 2020 budget next month.
Several council members praised Carter’s “holistic” approach to addressing more of the root causes of gun violence, such as poverty. His main strategy involves hiring community members and organizations to build relationships with residents and stop violent crime before it happens. The city would also expand existing community ambassador and youth employment programs and eliminate a proposed 2020 budget cut that would have added a $5 fee to after-school recreation center programs.
“I feel really excited about the direction we are going this year, as compared to last year,” said Council Member Mitra Jalali Nelson, who took office shortly before a controversial decision to add nine new officer positions to the police force.
But Council Member Dai Thao criticized Carter for his resistance to pursuing gunshot-detection technology.
“Here at this moment, we have the opportunity to do what’s right,” Thao said, calling for a pilot SpotSpotter project.
In a pointed exchange, Carter replied that pursuing the perception of safety with unproven “technological toys” was not enough.
Carter also downplayed any perceived animosity between him and Axtell, saying that they “have a wonderful relationship.”
St. Paul Police Federation President Paul Kuntz declined to comment on the mayor’s proposal, saying he hadn’t had a chance to read it. But Kuntz, who said morale among rank-and-file officers is low, defended Axtell’s push for ShotSpotter software.
“He’s not going to ask for something that isn’t necessary,” Kuntz said.