St. Paul police leaders made the case Wednesday for hiring 78 new officers to City Council members, who asked questions but gave little clue as to whether they’ll allocate more money for police staffing in next year’s budget.

“This is a starting place for a conversation,” said City Council President Amy Brendmoen, who ended a council committee meeting after two hours and asked Cmdr. Jack Serier, who conducted the staffing study, to return in March. “There’s a lot of work still to do in front of us.”

Serier, a longtime law enforcement official and former Ramsey County sheriff, spent 11 months conducting interviews, observing units at work and compiling statistics. His 250-page report, released in January, recommends hiring 78 sworn personnel, including 33 sergeants, plus 25 full-time employees to fill administrative roles.

The report, done at the council’s request, also recommends restructuring several investigative units to better manage growing caseloads. The homicide unit, for example, would be split into four, adding units for cold cases; robberies and kidnappings; and assaults and nonfatal shootings.

“We’ve got a growing set of demands given the amount of people that are living here now,” Serier told council members.

Chief Todd Axtell has repeatedly called for expanding the police force, citing an increase in 911 calls and the fact that not all St. Paul police officers are working at a given time. Council members have responded that they can’t make decisions without data.

According to Serier’s report, 911 calls rose more than 30% between 2013 and 2018. Between July 2018 and June 2019, Serier told council members, more than 5,000 high-priority 911 calls could not be dispatched within 30 seconds because not enough officers were available to respond. Most of those calls were in areas of concentrated poverty, he said.

Brendmoen said she would like to see more data on response times for lower-priority calls. She said she hears from constituents who have called about a break-in or a similar crime, and had to wait more than an hour for an officer to respond.

The Police Department’s sworn strength is higher than ever at 630, but the number of officers working is lower. Of the 608 officers on the department payroll, 570 are typically available to work, according to Serier’s report. The number of officers fluctuates due to retirements, vacations, military deployments, sick time, training and other leave.

On a given day, Serier said, one officer calling in sick might mean another officer has to work a long shift or come in on their day off.

“That’s where the real stress starts to come in,” he said.

Council Member Chris Tolbert noted that the Fire Department years ago faced a similar staffing challenge, and recommended Serier talk to the Fire Department about how it tackled the problem.

Police Department staffing is consistently one of the most controversial topics at City Hall, and gained fresh urgency last year when gun violence in the city reached a 25-year high.

In response, Mayor Melvin Carter proposed $1.7 million for a “community-first” approach to public safety, including expanding youth employment, hiring community ambassadors and launching a communications center for sharing information about public safety downtown, among other measures. The supplemental budget, which the council approved in December, did not include money for more officers.

On Wednesday, Serier acknowledged that his recommendations are just one piece of the city’s approach to public safety.

“I certainly realize that there are other competing interests,” he said. “This is just a moment in time, and it becomes a community conversation about all the different competing choices and initiatives that are going on here in the community.”

Staff writer Liz Sawyer contributed to this report.