St. Paul Police Chief Todd Axtell, a popular leader and champion for reform who oversaw the department during a period of escalating violence and unrest in the capital city, will not seek reappointment when his term expires in June.
Axtell announced the decision Wednesday morning in an emotional Facebook post, describing his time leading Minnesota's second-largest police force as his "greatest professional honor."
"I trust my instincts," he wrote. "I believe in the women and men of the[St. Paul Police Department]. And I know that it's time to move on to serve my community in another manner." Axtell, 53, did not reveal what's next for his career, nor provide a specific reason for his departure.
He told Mayor Melvin Carter, who will face voters next week in his bid for a second term, that the decision was difficult and made over a matter of months. In an interview Wednesday, Carter said he previously told Axtell that if he won re-election, he would appoint the chief to a second term.
"Chief Axtell has enormous shoes to fill," said Carter, who has sparred publicly with the chief about police resources. "By every objective standard, every analytical standard, the St. Paul Police Department is a stronger, healthier, more effective organization than we were even four years ago, which is a testament to Chief Axtell's leadership."
Axtell is credited with outfitting the department with body-worn cameras, recruiting a more diverse police force to better reflect St. Paul's changing demographics and renewing focus on officer training and wellness.
Being chief is "an immense job that carries considerable weight," he wrote in a statement.
"There's no greater responsibility than protecting people, seeking justice for victims and working to keep police officers safe as they rush into the unknown to help others. It has been a wonderful and trying experience, one I will forever cherish."
Axtell pursued a law enforcement degree after high school, determined to follow in the footsteps of his late grandfather — and personal hero — who served as an officer in Silver Bay, Minn.
He began his career at small-town police departments before coming to St. Paul in 1989. Over the next 30 years, Axtell rose quickly through the ranks, working stints in all three districts, the gang unit, narcotics and special investigations. Former Mayor Chris Coleman tapped Axtell, then assistant chief of operations, for the top job in 2016.
The ascent was humbling for a kid raised in a Northfield mobile home park.
But the tests came early and often.
Within his first two weeks on the job, Axtell was forced to confront large protests and mend community relations in the city after high-profile police shootings, including the killing of Philando Castile in neighboring Falcon Heights, even when his officers weren't involved. He later won praise for his quick response to misconduct in his own shop.
Since taking the helm, Axtell has fired at least seven officers, including five who stood by as an ex-cop assaulted a civilian outside an Eastside bar — decisions that sometimes put him at odds with the rank-and-file and police federation.
In the immediate aftermath of George Floyd's murder in Minneapolis, Axtell was unequivocal with his officers that "something went horribly wrong" at the intersection of 38th and Chicago. He directed each of them to watch the viral bystander footage of the incident at roll call, then challenged officers to reconsider their career choice if they would have acted the same as the Minneapolis officers involved.
"You have an obligation to intervene regardless of time on the job or regardless of rank," he later told the Star Tribune.
Axtell frequently defended tough calls by leaning on one of his primary philosophies: maintaining the "bank of trust" between police and the community they serve.
"He was always willing to listen," said Tyrone Terrill, president of the African American Leadership Council in St. Paul. "We're losing a great leader, an innovative leader. But more importantly, particularly for my community — the Black community — we're losing a man who always kept his word."
In the coming months, the City Council will appoint a committee to vet candidates vying to replace Axtell, according to the city's charter. That group, which has previously consisted of a mix of law enforcement officials and community members, will pick five finalists to present to Carter.
The mayor will then appoint a chief from the short list, and the council must approve the choice. Traditionally, the department has promoted from within.
St. Paul police chiefs serve six-year terms. The first year of that term is considered a probationary period of sorts, meaning the mayor can remove the chief with council approval. After that, a chief can be fired only for cause by the mayor with the votes of at least five of the council's seven members.
"I imagine my top priority will be finding someone who can help us to continue to maintain the momentum that we've built over these past few years together," Carter said.
The mayor has clashed with Axtell about the police department's budget at a time when the city is grappling with historic rates of gun violence and poised to surpass the single-year homicide record. During a routine presentation to the City Council in September, Axtell bucked authority by asking council members to spend $3.1 million more on the department than Carter proposed to help officers keep up with a surge in 911 calls.
The chief has raised concerns that a lack of funding in recent years has led to staffing shortages, officer exhaustion, cuts to community engagement and traffic enforcement, scaled-back training, longer response times and deteriorating equipment.
"I've wondered for the past two years how he was putting up with the way he was being hemmed in by the administration," Council Member Jane Prince said. She called Axtell's decision "a huge loss" for St. Paul.
Prince added that she's worried Carter will be "tempted to seek a chief who agrees with him on everything."
"I've always said if we didn't have Todd Axtell, we'd be trying to invent him," Prince said.
Council Member Mitra Jalali, who has publicly clashed with Axtell over police funding and other issues, said she has appreciated his commitment to the city. She praised the chief's support for the "community-first" public safety initiatives rolled out by Carter's administration as alternatives to law enforcement in certain situations.
"As I look ahead to embracing a new leader for our department, I'm looking for them to continue on things he has done that I have appreciated and think are really important," Jalali said, "and also pick up the work that I see needs to be done.".