A St. Paul commission tasked with rethinking how the city responds to emergencies recommended the creation of a new neighborhood safety office and the end of pretextual traffic stops by police, among other steps.
Mayor Melvin Carter created the 48-member Community-First Public Safety Commission in December to examine alternative ways of handling low-priority 911 calls. With members drawn from local government, community organizations, philanthropy, law enforcement and more, the commission met for five months.
In a Wednesday presentation to the City Council, the commission suggested that St. Paul establish an Office of Neighborhood Safety akin to Minneapolis' Office of Violence Prevention, which was launched in 2019 and aims to curb violence by treating it as a public health crisis. Minneapolis nearly tripled the agency's funding this year to $7.4 million in the face of twin demands to curb police brutality and address surging violent crime.
Amanda Koonjbeharry, director of public policy for the nonprofit Citizens League that facilitated the commission, told council members that researchers from the Harvard Kennedy School Government Performance Lab analyzed similar models in cities across the United States.
While most violence prevention offices were established within the last five years, she said some earlier efforts — like the Office of Neighborhood Safety in Richmond, Calif., launched in 2007 — have significantly reduced gun-related homicides and hospital visits.
The commission also recommended new or adapted approaches to how St. Paul handles emergency calls dealing with juveniles, welfare checks, reports of disorderly conduct, people in crisis, child abuse, vehicles and parking, civil problems and requests for general assistance.
Koonjbeharry said many of the recommendations are "broad or high-level," and some may already be partly realized thanks to existing programs or initiatives.
After Daunte Wright was killed during a traffic stop in Brooklyn Center last month, a handful of commission members proposed that St. Paul cease traffic stops except for "flagrant moving violations," such as speeding, drunken driving or hit-and-runs. Pretextual stops refer to the use of minor traffic or equipment violations as a legal way for police to pull over drivers they wish to investigate.
They also suggested the city explore new technology, like red light cameras, and use mailed citations for vehicle repair notices or expired tabs.
Council President Amy Brendmoen said the commission's work provides the elected body with "thoughtful, actionable" items as council members help determine St. Paul's 2022 budget and plans for the $166 million the city is receiving from the federal American Rescue Plan.
"We have an opportunity that six months ago we didn't know we would have with funds to back up the recommendations in front of us," she said.
St. Paul saw a 25% increase in violent crime in 2020, fueled by record gun violence and 34 homicides. Part of the commission's focus was to determine more appropriate responders for certain situations to allow police to concentrate on the city's most serious crimes.
The council will hear from Carter's office Wednesday on the suite of additional public safety programs St. Paul has spent more than $2 million on over the last two years. The commission was just one component of the mayor's approach to public safety, which aims to prevent crime by targeting root causes like poverty, homelessness and unemployment.
Acooa Ellis, co-chairwoman of the commission and senior vice president of community impact for the Greater Twin Cities United Way, told the council that she hopes the group's work leads to "a really robust, thoughtful and nuanced conversation about what public safety looks like and what's possible."
"St. Paul and the Twin Cities, we are at the epicenter for meaningful change on this topic. The eyes of the country, if not the world, are watching us," she said. "We have a tremendous opportunity, and we are well-suited to set a course for the folks that follow."
Katie Galioto • 612-673-4478