Public safety and the relationship between police and residents have become particularly pressing issues for St. Paul mayoral candidates as the race draws to a close.
Some of the first questions Thursday during a debate hosted by Minnesota Public Radio were about the city’s rise in shootings and a political mailer — sent by a political action committee in support of candidate Pat Harris — that tried to connect two guns stolen from candidate Melvin Carter’s home with rising violence.
The St. Paul Police Federation, which has endorsed Harris, was a leading contributor to the PAC that sent the mailer.
Carter said the mailer and letter show systemic racism must be addressed in St. Paul. Pat Harris called the campaign literature appalling, and said he did not know about it in advance.
“This is close to our 30th forum, and we’ve been talking about some good stuff and some stuff that is important, and then something like this comes up that clouds the logic of it all and it’s unfortunate and it’s wrong,” Harris said.
Carter and Harris, both former City Council members, have different policing plans.
Harris reiterated Thursday that the city should add 50 officers over the next four years. He also plans to add a gun violence community prosecutor and partner with the Ramsey County attorney’s office on a gun crime joint prosecution unit.
Carter said it is a “false philosophy” that hiring more police and prosecutors will lead to more public safety. He said the millions of dollars it would take to pay for the new police would be better spent on libraries and recreation centers.
“We are constantly dealing with symptoms and not core issues,” he said. “Let’s start building neighborhoods that produce safer outcomes before something bad happens.”
Council Member Dai Thao has said he would add some officers, though not as many as Harris proposed. He suggested Thursday that the city should “beef up undercover sting operations to root out the gangs and the gun trafficking folks that are coming into our town.” He also said he would want to block the sale of ammunition and guns in city limits.
Police need to have regular meetings with community and faith leaders, said candidate Elizabeth Dickinson, an environmental activist and health lobbyist. She said the city needs to reach out to young people “when their hearts are still open” and ask what help they need to keep them from getting involved in gangs.
St. Paul bears some responsibility for the rising gun violence, because it hasn’t deployed resources appropriately, former School Board Member Tom Goldstein said. The city needs to shift officers from desk jobs to the streets and provide after-school programs to give kids something to do so they don’t get in trouble, he said.
At Thursday’s forum, candidates also emphasized that future housing developments should include units for lower-income residents, and discussed plans for the Riverview Corridor along West Seventh Street, where a modern streetcar is proposed.
Carter and Dickinson support the streetcar idea, while Harris and Thao said they are interested in looking into the streetcar as well as bus rapid transit, and warned that the city needs to be wary of the impact on business owners. Goldstein said they need to look deeper into local concerns and make sure there is community buy-in.
St. Paul voters have two more chances to hear mayoral hopefuls lay out their plans before Election Day on Tuesday. Forums are scheduled for 7 p.m. Friday at the North Garden Theater and 6 p.m. Saturday at Kolap Restaurant, 601 Dale St. N. Ten candidates are competing for the city’s top post, though not all have been participating in forums.