St. Paul Police Chief Todd Axtell wants to add 50 new officers to the department over two years in a move that would bring police staffing to its highest levels ever.

The City Council was receptive to the proposal presented Wednesday as part of Axtell's annual report. Axtell wants to add 25 new officers each year for two years, a move that would be partly responsible for increasing the department's annual budget from about $101 million to $106 million.

"I would ask that you not consider this as hiring more cops to arrest people," Axtell told the council. "This is all about hiring community engagement officers to serve people and to serve people for an entire career."

He also proposed a new program that would require all new officers to spend six months in the department's community engagement unit before responding to 911 calls.

Although 2019 budget talks are still in their early stages, Axtell met with no pushback from the council on his plans.

"This council is supportive of that plan and fleshing it out and getting the dollars and cents behind it, and so I hope — we hope — to see that as part of the police department's budget," said council President Amy Brendmoen.

Mayor Melvin Carter, who has championed police reform, could not be reached for comment.

"The mayor's office was aware that the chief was going to present to council this morning," said Carter's spokeswoman, Liz Xiong. "The mayor is still meeting with departments regarding the 2019 budget, and at this time, cannot be reached for comment."

Lifelong St. Paul resident and activist Yusef Mgeni said he would like to see more public engagement to ensure that community members support the move, and that any new hires will meet community needs.

"I don't think the issue so much is the number of officers as how they are mobilized," said Mgeni, vice president of the NAACP Minnesota/Dakotas Area State Conference. "Many of our issues, we can't simply police them away."

Mgeni, who is also a member of the open government group, St. Paul STRONG, said the city should prioritize hiring officers from the community, and ensure that they are properly trained to address everything from mental health to immigration issues.

Force would reach 676

The department is currently at 626 sworn officers, the most in its history. That number would increase to 676 under Axtell's proposal.

The department plans to apply for a federal grant it hopes will pay for the first 16 hires at a cost of about $90,000 per officer.

Axtell said the officers are needed to work with community members in a growing city that is seeing more development. He also said that an increase in 911 calls often leaves residents frustrated about the lag time between when a call is placed and when officers arrive.

The new officers' first six months in the community engagement unit would include ongoing training, "learning opportunities" and attendance at cultural events and programs, among other responsibilities.

"The main point of those first six months is to get to know our community before policing our community," Axtell said. "The first six months, I don't want any of these officers responding to a 911 call."