St. Paul police officer Anna Taylor was 4 years old when the car she was riding in crashed on a highway in Florida, killing her mother and two others in the vehicle.
“All I remember is I had to get out of my car seat,” Taylor said. “I remember crawling out of the car, and I believe the first person I saw was a state trooper.”
The crash has been on Taylor’s mind as she completes her first year on the force and stars in a department video aimed at recruiting women. The video began playing Friday and will run before every movie on all 94 screens at 11 Mann Theatres locations across Minnesota.
“Being able to give people a second chance because of what I’ve gone through is wonderful,” said Taylor, 23. “Being a female officer is important, because we can help each other.”
The short video that features the real-life Taylor and actors representing her at other stages in life is the latest effort by St. Paul to counter the loss of women in its ranks. The department was about 16 percent female in June 2016 but has dropped to about 14 percent. One of Chief Todd Axtell’s top priorities is to recruit more women and people of color into the force of 628.
Axtell said half as many women are applying to become officers in St. Paul today compared to previous years, and that the percentage of women on the force has dropped due to attrition.
“We’re losing ground, and we need to think outside of the box to attract the best and brightest talent,” Axtell said. “If we can find more Anna Taylors, we’ll be much better off.”
That is no easy feat. Departments across Minnesota are vying for a small pool of female candidates at a time when authorities warn that the state is experiencing a “crisis” in attracting and keeping police recruits from any background. The State Patrol held a special informational session for women earlier this month.
Axtell and other law enforcement officials have said that female officers communicate well, excel at de-escalating situations and are less likely than their male counterparts to be accused of using excessive force, among other benefits.
St. Paul’s messaging is taking a noticeably subtle approach. The 55-second video featuring Taylor makes no verbal mention of the department. The first visual sign of the department comes a little more than halfway into the video with a sweat-drenched Taylor sitting on a wrestling mat with the department’s blurry logo in the background.
“It’s important for our young women to understand that this isn’t your grandfather’s police department,” Axtell said. “What we’re trying to do in St. Paul is to make sure people understand that you don’t have to change who you are to be with us. We want you to come with us to help us change who we are.”
The video cost $5,000 to create. Michelle Mann, a district manager and co-owner of Mann Theatres, said the company agreed to play the video for free through January because of its long friendship with Axtell, who worked as an usher at the Brainerd location when he was a teenager.
Axtell’s executive assistant, Angie Steenberg, proposed showing the video, which was once destined only for social media, at the movies. It also will be shared on social media.
Axtell and Deputy Chief Mary Nash said recruiting women also includes mentoring in the high schools, partnering with former Gophers basketball coach Pam Borton’s Leadership Academy for Girls and fostering women in the department’s Law Enforcement Career Path Academy, which has 22 participants, more than half of them women.
In recent years St. Paul began holding informational sessions aimed at female recruits but open to all genders. The next session is scheduled for 10 a.m. tonoon on Jan. 19 at the department’s training center.
Axtell said he also wants to work with legislators and the Minnesota Peace Officer Standards and Training Board, which licenses officers, to remove the barrier that requires recruits to pay for a 10-week skills program that can cost up to $8,000. Prospective officers must attend a skills program at select colleges after completing their law enforcement degree. The cost, and often the need to relocate to a new city, can prevent people from becoming officers, Axtell said, when St. Paul and a few large departments already teach the same skills in their police academies.
“We have to do a better job of advocating for our underserved populations’ interest rather than our educational institutions’ financial interest,” he said.