St. Paul was left reeling Friday, a day after a man was stabbed to death in the capital city's record 35th homicide of the year.
The killing, which started over a parking dispute on the 1700 block of East 7th Street on the East Side, left leaders with more questions than answers as St. Paul tries to combat an increase in crime that is being mirrored across the country.
"The absolute worst part of my job is getting notice that someone's lost their life in this city," Mayor Melvin Carter said Friday. "And I've gotten that notice more times this year than any mayor in the history of our city ever has. That is traumatic. That is heartbreaking."
The homicide Thursday came as Carter prepares to start his second term — and search for a new police chief. Chief Todd Axtell announced in October that he will not seek reappointment.
Since taking office in 2018, Carter has advocated for a "community-first" approach to public safety by rolling out a suite of programs designed to address root causes of crime, such has poverty, which the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated.
St. Paul's population has grown in recent years, meaning the city's homicide rate per capita remains below historic records. But the mayor's critics have argued that the police force has not been bolstered to serve the larger population — a point Axtell made in a plea for money to hire more officers in 2022.
"It's a sad day, but it's not surprising," Mark Ross, president of the St. Paul Police Federation, said Friday. "If we were fully staffed, I don't think we would have reached this number."
Brian Harry Kjellberg, 50, was arrested Friday morning and booked into the Ramsey County Jail on a charge of second-degree murder in the death of Arnell J. Stewart, 27, of Georgia. The victim was identified by the Ramsey County medical examiner.
Amid historic levels of gun violence in 2020, St. Paul tied a record of 34 homicides set in 1992.
City police last year responded to 2,326 reports of shots fired, more than double the total of 2019. And gunfire struck at least 220 people — the first time St. Paul surpassed 200 gunshot victims in a year. So far, 219 have been wounded by gunshots in 2021.
Across the river, Minneapolis is creeping closer to a record no one wants broken. A fatal shooting Wednesday night on the North Side was the 93rd homicide this year, according to the Star Tribune's database. That is just four shy of the record of 97 set in 1995 during an era that earned the city the ignominious nickname: "Murderapolis."
The surge in gun violence is not limited to the Twin Cities. Most major metropolitan areas, including Atlanta, Chicago and Portland, Ore., have seen a sharp rise in homicides amid the pandemic and nationwide unrest over the high-profile killings of Black Americans, including George Floyd.
St. Paul City Council President Amy Brendmoen , whose ward has also experienced homicides this year, said every killing is unbearably painful for families and the community.
"My sense," she said, "is that people are sad and also exhausted by the number of senseless deaths we have experienced this year — here and nationwide."
City Council Member Jane Prince, who represents the East Side, said the news of Stewart's death was devastating and demoralizing for the neighborhood. That area — and St. Paul as a whole — desperately need more police officers, Prince said.
"The mayor has been saying for years that we need a data-driven public safety strategy, and apparently he feels that we're moving toward that," she said. "Until those programs are in place and are functional or achieving something, we have got to rely on our police to deal with the growing crime in our neighborhood."
The police chief and others have described St. Paul officers as exhausted and overworked, often relying on overtime. St. Paul has 554 sworn officers and 61 recruits, who will be fully trained by July, said Sgt. Natalie Davis, a police spokeswoman.
"Every person killed this year left behind loved ones. Their deaths left scars on our community, and it's hard on our officers, who take these deaths personally," Davis said. "What we want everyone to know is that we're doing everything we can to interrupt these cycles of violence and get justice for the victims and their families."
In his 2022 budget proposal, Carter included funding to fill some of the officer positions left vacant during the pandemic and for the city's Law Enforcement Career Path Academy, a program that aims to diversify police ranks and was previously funded mostly through grants. His plan suggested allocating $120.8 million, about 17% of the city's overall budget, to police in 2022.
"We are investing in police," the mayor said Friday. "But we are also seeing very clearly that an approach to public safety that just centers around getting here as fast as we can after someone gets shot or after something terrible happens isn't producing the type of proactive public safety outcomes that we want."
Carter said he has not decided whether to accept a $3.75 million grant from the U.S. Department of Justice that would fund a portion of 30 officers' salaries for the next three years — the city would fund the remainder. He said he is "concerned about the prospect of making that enormous of a long-term budget obligation without the level of transparency that we apply to every other aspect of our budget."
New and future programs should reduce the incidents requiring police response, Carter said, and give officers more time to focus on criminal investigations.
"I think this is one of those areas — there are many in life — in which the best route to short-term outcomes is getting moving towards the long-term outcomes that we need," he said.