Preliminary statistics released by the St. Paul Police Department show that overall crime in St. Paul dropped in 2016, while reports of shots fired and calls for service increased.
The data, which will be further vetted before final numbers are submitted to the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension and the FBI, reflect signs of progress, Police Chief Todd Axtell said. But they also indicate that the department's top priority — reducing gun violence — will remain a challenge in 2017.
Total crime in St. Paul dropped 2.4 percent from 2015 to 2016. A decline in homicide, rape, theft, robbery and aggravated assaults in 2016 can be attributed to community members working with police to reduce crime, Axtell said, and a new push by each police district to review its crime statistics every two days instead of at the end of every month, as was customary.
"The districts taking a more up-to-date approach of looking at the two-day crime trends allow them to assign resources in the areas that are currently experiencing a spike in crime," Axtell said.
The practice began in the Western District a few years ago and eventually became the norm across the city, Axtell said.
According to the data: From 2015 to 2016, homicides dropped from 22 to 21; rapes, 184 to 159; aggravated assaults, 959 to 878; robberies, 731 to 715, and thefts, 6,087 to 5,635.
But numbers going back to 2012 show that last year's homicide numbers were higher than preliminary homicide data for each preceding year but 2015. Robberies, auto theft and commercial burglaries in 2016 were also higher than preliminary figures in 2012.
Auto thefts, residential burglaries, commercial burglaries and reports of shots fired all increased from 2015 to 2016. Commercial burglary numbers jumped the most — 30 percent — from 335 incidents to 436.
Another big jump during that time was the number of shots-fired calls, which increased by 28.6 percent, or 238 reports. Police spokesman Steve Linders said that data could reflect multiple calls for the same incident, or calls that were ultimately about other noise, such as firecrackers. The numbers will be more closely analyzed to determine which reports were founded and unfounded.
"I think it's very fair to say that gun violence is a very serious issue, and we are seeing an uptick in shots-fired calls," said Senior Cmdr. Axel Henry, who oversees the Eastern District. "Our thing is always call, call, call [about possible gunfire]. We encourage that, and that's good for everybody."
Although Axtell said that there were fewer people injured by gunfire in 2016 than in 2015 — 95 vs. 103 — gun violence remains his top priority.
In a few weeks, the department will move five officers and one sergeant from its current ranks into its gang and gun unit, which currently has 19 sworn officers.
Axtell said the additional officers will work in areas of the city with the highest concentration of shots-fired calls and collaborate with federal authorities to target gangs that traffic guns, among the officers' other duties.
The data also showed that while there was a 16.9 percent drop from 2015 to 2016 in the number of officer-generated contacts, which could range from proactively visiting a local business to initiating a traffic stop, the number of 911 calls increased by 6.8 percent, or 4,488 calls.
Axtell said a number of things could have contributed to the decrease in proactive officer visits: officers being assigned to several protests that occurred last year in the wake of St. Anthony police officer Jeronimo Yanez fatally shooting Philando Castile in Falcon Heights, more time spent on proactive visits and officers' reaction to increased public scrutiny across the country in the wake of officer-involved shootings of black men.
"I know that's a national topic right now," Axtell said. "There is always that factor. We can't ignore that the national conversation right now had direct impact on how officers feel about the job that they're doing."