A St. Paul commission has recommended that some police calls be handled by non-officers and that the city create a new neighborhood safety and violence prevention office. Many of the suggestions should be adopted by the city as its leaders rethink public safety strategies.
The 46-member group convened by Mayor Melvin Carter said the city should focus on alternate responses to low-priority 911 calls in several categories. The Citizens League, a St. Paul-based nonprofit, facilitated the commission's work during the past five months, including holding town hall meetings to gather community input. The findings were presented to the City Council last week.
Though worthwhile, these non-law enforcement approaches should not be used to reduce and defund the St. Paul Police Department (SPPD). Especially not now, when the city has experienced an uptick in violent crime, including shootings.
Still, the recommendations are useful as St. Paul and other American cities work to reform policing and public safety following the deaths of George Floyd and others during encounters with cops. Police or public safety departments must do both — change police culture and tactics that lead to unnecessary injuries and deaths while also keeping all citizens safe.
In announcing the commission last year as part of his administration's larger "Community-First Public Safety" plan, Carter asked the group to specifically "rethink how we respond to 911 calls" and to dispatch sworn officers where they are needed the most. Central to the overall plan, Carter told an editorial writer, is " freeing up our officers to work on more violent crime. It's about offering a higher level of service to our residents" and better focusing city resources to reimagine public safety efforts.
The commission identified eight types of calls that could be handled without officers that involve nonemergency, nonviolent matters and when a suspect is not on the scene that generated the call.
Among those calls are: youth problems such as curfew violations; welfare checks; disorderly conduct such as noise complaints; people in crisis who are not a threat to themselves or others; civil disputes in which no crime has occurred; parking matters, including property-damage crashes or vehicle thefts, and general assistance to citizens. The work group also suggested exploring mailing vehicle repair and expired tabs notices instead of stopping motorists solely for those violations.
The commission recommend that St. Paul establish an Office of Neighborhood Safety similar to Minneapolis' two-year-old Office of Violence Prevention, which works to reduce violence by treating it as a public health crisis. Minneapolis nearly tripled the agency's funding this year to $7.4 million, and on Thursday Mayor Jacob Frey and other city leaders announced a separate but similar violence prevention effort on the city's North Side.
Across the river in St. Paul, City Council President Amy Brendmoen said the work of the commission led by the Citizens League provides "thoughtful, actionable" items as council members help determine St. Paul's 2022 budget and plan 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.
During his State of the City address on Thursday, Carter reiterated his commitment to the violence prevention strategy and the use of federal funds.
That's positive news. St. Paul shouldn't squander this chance to make meaningful change.