St. Paul police have shifted officers’ duties and crafted plans to reach out to neighbors as part of an attempt to curb gun and gang violence across the city this summer.
Chief Todd Axtell detailed those changes, and others, at a City Council meeting Wednesday. The update, requested by Council Member Dan Bostrom, came a week after Axtell briefed the council on his first year as chief, saying that fighting gun and gang violence was his top priority.
“Gun violence mitigation is the primary objective of my office, and the priority has been shared with the entire department,” Axtell said. “Every investigative unit in the department is prioritizing these cases to better reflect the issue that we have at hand.”
The city’s East Side and North End in particular have been dealing with gunfire. Earlier this month, a 2-year-old girl was critically injured when she was struck by a bullet during a shooting in her North End backyard. On Saturday, a 19-year-old man was shot to death outside an apartment building near the Capitol.
Axtell said the department reassigned two sergeants and five officers to the Gun and Gang Unit in hopes of shortening response times to incidents involving gunfire.
The Gun and Gang Unit also has a role in the new Shooting Response Team that immediately responds to shots-fired incidents, canvassing neighborhoods, locating evidence, and interviewing witnesses, suspects and victims. The team was implemented about two months ago and also includes members of the FORCE (Focusing Our Resources on Community Empowerment) unit.
Officers responding to neighborhoods where shots have been fired will also try a new tactic to reach out to residents: hanging signs on doors. Axtell said he hopes the door hangers will help inform residents and perhaps coax witnesses to come forward.
So far this year in St. Paul, 286 guns have been recovered and 158 people have been arrested for illegal gun possession, with 54 of those people having “clear ties to known criminal gangs,” Axtell said.
In another new initiative, officers have been test-firing those recovered guns in hopes of using the bullet casings to develop leads in unsolved shootings. The department also holds “gun mitigation briefings” three times a week, Axtell said, to discuss trends and strategies and to make sure officers are properly deployed.
He stressed the importance of combating gun violence, saying it causes “real pain and real loss in the city of St. Paul, as it does throughout the country.”
“Although these changes have taken resources from other department priorities, we must address gun violence head-on and certainly to the best of our ability,” he said.
The department is also purchasing body cameras and adding civilian staff members, Axtell reported to the council last week. By the end of the year, he said he also hopes to have every officer trained in mental health crisis intervention.
Axtell encouraged the community to support police, noting that they are under more scrutiny than ever.
Bostrom, a former police officer, said residents need to come forward and work with police to stop gun violence.
Bostrom said support for cops doing their jobs is critical. He said it’s important that officers respond to gun violence as it happens and work to combat the issue that he says has grown exponentially since he was an officer.
“Just keeping up isn’t good enough,” he said. “You’ve got to get ahead.”