Despite pressure from constituents and activists, a majority of the St. Paul City Council say they don’t favor dismantling the capital city’s police department.
Hundreds of e-mails have urged St. Paul leaders to do so in the wake of George Floyd’s killing by a Minneapolis police officer last month. The majority of the Minneapolis City Council pledged this week to “begin the process of ending” their police department.
In interviews, most St. Paul council members said they recognize the need for swift action on public safety reform, but want to continue to make investments in community-based alternatives to traditional policing, rather than get rid of the police force altogether.
“If we had a department that had not been willing to engage on improvements and innovations and new strategies to work more closely with community as Minneapolis has had, then I might need us to go further right now,” said Council Member Jane Prince. “But our department, at the leadership level, has been extremely open and welcoming of ideas, of any opportunities to work with community to make our community safer.”
Council Member Nelsie Yang, is the only one of the seven calling for outright abolition of the St. Paul Police Department. Council Member Mitra Jalali said she also supports abolition, but emphasized that such a change won’t happen overnight.
When asked whether he would support defunding or abolishing the police department, Mayor Melvin Carter pointed to what the city has already done — including embedding social workers with police, limiting the use of police dogs and rewriting the police department’s use-of-force policy.
“My response when people ask, ‘What is St. Paul going to do?’ is, ‘We’re already doing it,’ ” he said.
Last year, the council approved a 2020 budget that eliminated five police officer positions and allocated $1.7 million for “community-based public safety” measures such as youth employment and outreach, streetscape improvements and incentives for landlords to rent to people with criminal histories. Carter proposed the supplemental budget in response to a rise in gun violence.
Council Member Rebecca Noecker said she has “a lot of concerns” about the supplemental public safety budget, and wonders why the initiatives it’s supposed to pay for didn’t launch in the first few months of 2020, before the COVID-19 pandemic derailed much of the city’s work.
Carter said creating and funding new programs takes time.
“If we pass a budget on Dec. 11 or whatever it is, we’re not expecting a whole staff and program to be implemented and operational Jan. 3,” he said.
The community-first public safety plan is underway, he said — mental health workers are currently undergoing training, for example — and will continue to roll out through the summer.
Though St. Paul leaders have already invested in many of the alternatives to policing that activists are now calling for, Noecker said, they haven’t done so with specific results in mind. Moving forward, that will need to change, she said.
“I think we need to show people that we’re serious,” Noecker said. “If we don’t start with a shared vision it’ll be really hard to know what we’re doing is the right thing to do.”