St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter’s election in 2017 ignited hope among police accountability advocates that he would transform the city’s approach to policing by putting the community before cops.
A year after Carter took office, activists and community leaders say they’re still waiting for that change to come.
In December, Carter signed a 2019 budget that included a last-minute addition of nine new police officers, after a series of public meetings without mention of new hires. He didn’t speak out publicly after a rash of police dog attacks on innocent people until another person was bitten. Two city staffers focused on police-community relations and oversight — Jason Sole and Human Rights Director Jessica Kingston — have resigned after concluding that they couldn’t be effective.
“Mayor Carter hasn’t had any buy-in to making sure that things actually change,” said Tonja Honsey, an activist based in the Rondo area. “It’s concerning and frustrating, because the people put him in there because of those promises.”
Activists who want to talk to Carter about their concerns say scheduling a meeting with him is nearly impossible. St. Paul NAACP President Dianne Binns said she and other black leaders met with Carter after he was elected, but spent almost a year trying to schedule a second meeting. The group met monthly with Chris Coleman when he was mayor, she said.
Todd Gramenz, who leads Black Lives Matter St. Paul, said his group has had the same struggle.
“There’s a gaping hole,” he said. “Everyone sees it.”
In an interview Feb. 15, Carter did not address the criticisms directly. He said his “community-first” public safety approach encompasses a wide range of policies and investments, from raising the citywide minimum wage to $15 an hour to eliminating library fines and putting more money into recreation center programming.
“Potentially we can do a better job of weaving it all together to show people how this fits the frame that we introduced a year and a half ago,” Carter said. “And I think there’s a whole lot of good work already in place, already in process.”
A month before Election Day in 2017, Carter’s campaign released a policing plan to diversify the force, increase oversight of officers and add mental health workers.
“True community safety means preventing crime before it happens — by investing in strong neighborhoods — and ensuring that our police officers have the training, tools and community connections they need to ensure greater safety for all St. Paul residents,” Carter said in a statement on his campaign website.
That message hit home, said Monica Bravo, executive director of the West Side Community Organization and co-founder of Root & Restore, a group that advocates for community-first public safety in St. Paul.
“It resonated with people — the vision of community-first safety that is about accountability and imagining this new vision for justice and wellness that’s centered with people who are most affected by it,” Bravo said. “For the mayor to come out and talk about it as he was running for office was something that folks got behind.”
Bravo said about 55 people attended a meeting with Sole on the West Side. “There was a lot of hope in the room,” she said.
Sole lasted about 10 months. In his January resignation letter, Sole wrote that the mayor didn’t support any of his initiatives and asked him to support efforts he didn’t agree with, including a data sharing agreement about “at-risk” youth (later scuttled by Carter) and Ramsey County’s gun violence intervention initiative.
“I was hoping that you truly envisioned a safer St. Paul,” Sole wrote, “but I realize that it was simply rhetoric.”
Sole declined to comment. After his resignation became public, Carter said in a statement that he appreciated Sole’s work and wished him well.
Diverging from police
In public, the mayor and Chief Todd Axtell present a united front.
Carter’s father, Melvin Carter Jr., was a St. Paul police officer who worked alongside Axtell. Axtell said he first met the younger Melvin Carter when he was a child.
In an interview, Axtell said he and the mayor have “a very good working relationship” and share the goals of making St. Paul neighborhoods safer, diversifying the police force and building community trust in police. Shortly after Carter took office, they worked together to update the police department’s use-of-force policy.
In March, Kingston, the former human rights director, filed state and federal complaints accusing top police officials of undermining her ability to operate the city’s police oversight commission.
Still, Carter at times has gone his own way — even if only in private.
In June, after the Star Tribune published a story on the police department’s K-9 use, Carter said in an e-mail to his staff that he was “disgusted” by what he read.
“If all our K9s are trained to ‘find & bite’ anyone they encounter while working, I’m considering demanding a timeout on the whole unit until they can all be reliably retrained,” he wrote.
Carter said he didn’t recall the details of the e-mail.
“There’s just a never-ending, ongoing conversation between the chief and I about how we can just continue to improve the way we support our officers and the police services that we provide to our city,” he said.
A month after the story was published, a loose police dog attacked an innocent bystander and Carter and Axtell issued a joint statement announcing restrictions on the police department’s use of K-9s.
Also in June, Carter nixed Axtell’s request for 50 new police officers, saying in a Facebook post that “our driving goal shouldn’t be to hire as many officers as possible but to reduce the number of times we have to call police in the first place.” Carter eventually agreed to hire nine new officers to replace those promoted, despite public opposition at a budget hearing.
In August, St. Paul police shot and killed William “Billy” Hughes after responding to a call of shots fired at his apartment. Two days later, Carter called for the release of the body camera footage; Axtell followed with a statement shortly after, pledging to release the video within 10 days.
Carter said his relationship with the chief allows for both cooperation and disagreement. “The police chief’s really no different than any of our other department directors, all of whom could probably tell you of ideas that they had and have wanted to pursue that we haven’t been able to pursue, or that I’ve disagreed with,” he said.
‘Only given him a year’
Last month, the mayor’s office announced a series of community events for residents to talk about their priorities for the city in the coming year, including on public safety, ahead of Carter’s upcoming State of Our City address.
Meanwhile, Carter said, his office is already advocating for “smart on crime” policies at the city and state levels.
“We have a set of policies that have been rooted in that ‘tough on crime’ philosophy that have really been at the core of serving to marginalize and disenfranchise people from our greater community, which makes us all less safe,” he said.
Tyrone Terrill, president of the African American Leadership Council, said he sees Carter’s public safety agenda as a work in progress. “I don’t think 12 months is a fair time to judge a mayor,” he said.
Others are taking a similar wait-and-see approach.
“Are there things that he could do different that he said he would do on the campaign trail? Yes, but you’ve only given him a year,” said activist John Thompson. “If we have the same conversation three years from now, and the same conditions exist that exist right now, then I can tell you we made a bad choice.”