On the heels of multiple homicides and a shooting outside the Minnesota State Fair, last weekend’s fatal shooting of a man by a St. Paul officer has heightened community divisions as city leaders are deciding how many police officer positions to fund in next year’s budget.
Police Chief Todd Axtell reiterated a plea for more resources for his department at a City Council budget committee meeting Wednesday morning, noting the unrelenting violence of the past few weeks.
“I understand that you have difficult decisions to make regarding the 2020 budget — I truly do,” Axtell said. “I also know that cutting police officers is absolutely not in the best interest of the city of St. Paul.”
Budget committee meetings typically happen in a near-empty room, but the council chambers on Wednesday were filled with Black Lives Matter activists on one side and officers and residents who came to show support for police on the other.
Mayor Melvin Carter’s proposed 2020 budget would reduce the police department’s sworn strength from 635 to 630. The department now has 608 officers on its payroll, 570 of whom are available to work, Axtell said, explaining that the number of officers fluctuates due to retirements, vacations, military deployments and parental leave.
Council members asked whether there are ways other than increasing the number of sworn officers to get more on the street and repeated their request for a department staffing study. Axtell said the study will be completed by the end of the year.
The department provided nearly 200 pages of data, crime maps and official reports in advance of Wednesday’s meeting, after council members said at Axtell’s Sept. 4 budget presentation that they needed more information before making budget decisions.
The number of officers on the police payroll has declined from 626 in January, department data show. Though the 2019 budget added nine officers, Axtell said, the department couldn’t fill those jobs after the council passed the budget because it was too late in the year.
After the current police academy graduates, he said, the department will hire to meet the 630-officer cap.
Council Member Mitra Jalali Nelson, who represents the Hamline-Midway neighborhood where an officer shot and killed 31-year-old Ronald K. Davis on Sunday after the officer’s squad car was rammed, said that she wants more discussion about how to intervene and prevent crime without police.
“I’ve had a knot in my stomach for days because of what’s been happening,” Nelson said, “and I think that we need to find a new way forward that is not just reacting and reacting, driving up fear and turmoil and not actually healing the roots.”
Council President Amy Brendmoen told the crowd in the council chambers that they’ll have a chance to give input before the council votes on the 2020 budget in December.
“We are looking at the city budget as a whole, and when we talk about investing in police and when we talk about investing in other resources to go upstream with crime, that includes things far beyond just the Police Department,” she said. “It’s all a big puzzle that we’re putting together.”
After Axtell’s presentation, police accountability activists launched into a chant of “Black lives matter!” that echoed off the mahogany walls, then flooded the hallway outside the council chambers.
Laura Jones, of the group Root and Restore, noted that the Police Department budget has grown over time and said she would like to see city investments in community-based approaches to reducing violence and crime.
“If arresting and imprisoning people were the answer to public safety, the United States would be the safest nation on the planet,” she said. “But it’s not. It’s short-term, it’s reactive and it’s never going to be the answer.”
Nearby, Carter talked to meeting attendees including Frogtown resident Carl Roith, who attended in support of more police.
“I hope he goes along with it — gives them more money,” Roith said of the mayor, adding that their conversation was “so-so.”
“He’s going to try and do what he can,” he said.
The council will vote on the 2020 budget in December.