St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter’s $1.7 million suite of new programs and services to curb gun violence has been delayed, altered or canceled this year amid the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting economic crisis.
As the Capital City endures a summer even more violent than the one that prompted Carter’s “community-first public safety budget,” some City Council members say they’re frustrated by the pace of change and have struggled to get information about how the budget they approved is being spent.
“I have not seen a prior administration that has been so remote from the council in terms of the budget and in terms of a major initiative like this,” said Council Member Jane Prince.
The $1.7 million supplemental public safety budget was intended to pay for a range of proposals, including hiring community ambassadors, helping renters with criminal histories find housing, developing alternative prosecution models and launching a communications center for sharing information about public safety downtown.
Most initiatives are in their early stages, with foundational steps like hiring still underway. Some, including the housing program, downtown communications center and “community EMTs” in the fire department, won’t be fully realized until late 2020 or 2021.
In an interview, Carter said the pandemic “threw all of our timelines for the year off, but I think we are getting up and running pretty well.”
Two line items in the original budget — the Right Track youth employment program and community EMTs — have been shaved down, and a pedestrian safety engineer won’t be hired as originally planned, Carter said. The total savings in 2020 will be at least $394,000, according to Carter spokesman Peter Leggett.
The pandemic has made it harder to communicate with the public, Carter said, though more details will be available in his 2021 budget address later this month.
“My invitation for anyone who has had criticism is you can do more than sit at home and criticize it, but plug into the process and help us continually make this construct better so that we can serve our city as well as possible,” he said.
The tension between city leaders comes amid a surge in gun violence in St. Paul, where shots-fired calls have more than doubled compared with this time last year. In fact, every metric of violent crime, excluding rape, is up by more than 30%.
At least 126 people have been shot in St. Paul this year, including 19 who were killed. Homicides are already on track to surpass last year’s record high in shooting deaths.
Nationally, the pandemic has had an uneven effect on crime, although several large cities have seen significant upticks in violence since the unrest that followed George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police.
Criminologists say the causes are unchanged — inadequate housing, unemployment, poverty and other forms of neglect, coupled with a seemingly bottomless supply of illegal firearms.
Carter’s approach to public safety has focused on root causes. Since taking office, he’s directed money to services such as recreation centers, libraries and housing instead of more cops. Carter cut five officer positions in his 2020 budget; in 2021, belt-tightening in the police department could mean unprecedented layoffs of active-duty officers.
Last year, faced with the city’s highest homicide rate in 25 years, Carter brought forward his supplemental public safety budget in a rare presentation to the council, saying it was “perhaps the most comprehensive approach to public safety and crime prevention that our city has ever taken.”
Council members were supportive, and continue to point to community-first public safety as a reason they’re not interested in dismantling their police department. But their desire to see results, especially as crime continues to rise, has fueled frustration.
Council Member Rebecca Noecker, who said she’s heard from constituents wondering what’s going on, said she got an update on community-first public safety Tuesday and wants that information shared publicly.
Betsy Mowry Voss, executive director of the Southeast Community Organization, said she attended an Aug. 3 roundtable with the city’s community-first public safety work group, which meets weekly and is made up of the Mayor’s Office, city departments including police and fire, St. Paul-Ramsey County Public Health, the Downtown Alliance and community ambassadors.
Mowry Voss said she supports the mayor’s plan, but “it feels really preliminary.”
“It is missing the community members it’s supposed to be serving,” she said. “The strongest thing you can do as an organizer, and in making change, is to involve the people who change is being made for. And we’re not seeing that yet.”
Across the city, community organizations have a history of working to stem violence on their own — and recently, some have taken matters into their own hands.
In March, St. Paul-Ramsey County Public Health applied for up to $220,000 in federal grant money to implement a Group Violence Intervention (GVI) strategy to fight gang violence. The money would have funded a dedicated Ramsey County violence prevention coordinator, comparable to Minneapolis’ position, housed in Carter’s office.
The grant recipient has yet to be formally announced, but applicants confirmed that a coalition of African American community organizations in St. Paul won that funding instead.
The African American Leadership Council and St. Paul Black Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance submitted a competing proposal after Carter declined to pursue the grant last year.
Tyrone Terrill, president of the Leadership Council, downplayed any conflict with the Mayor’s Office, instead saying that residents wanted more direct involvement in the solution.
“We felt this is not a police or a government problem,” he said, referring to rising gun violence. “This is a community problem.”
Terrill will serve as project manager and eventually hire two case managers tasked with doing street outreach work with troubled youth. Without the grant, it’s unclear whether the city and county will fill the violence prevention coordinator position, or how it would be funded.
With four months left in the year and a projected multimillion-dollar deficit in 2020, it’s also unclear what community-first public safety will look like in 2021. Council members won’t know what’s in Carter’s budget address until they hear it — though Noecker said she’s asked for details.
“Given the murder of George Floyd and the calls for police reform that we’re hearing and that we’re responding to, community-first public safety is going to be dovetailing with whatever those efforts are that we take next,” she said. “That can’t just be something that happens behind closed doors in the Mayor’s Office.”