St. Paul police chief: Cops are 'pushed to the brink,' more funding needed

A routine budget meeting this week turned tense after Chief Todd Axtell diverged from the mayor's budget proposal


By Katie Galioto
Star Tribune

ST. PAUL, Minn. — Citing an inability to keep up with a surge in crime that's overwhelming officers, St. Paul Police Chief Todd Axtell is asking the City Council to spend $3.1 million more on his department than what Mayor Melvin Carter proposed.

The unusual bucking of authority during a routine budget presentation on Wednesday sparked tensions between the police chief, the mayor and council members about the role of law enforcement in St. Paul, a debate that has intensified in cities across the country since the murder of George Floyd sparked calls to defund police agencies and invest in alternative public safety programs.

St. Paul Police Chief Todd Axtell, right, answers questions during a news conference Friday, Nov. 4, 2016 in St. Paul, Minn.
St. Paul Police Chief Todd Axtell, right, answers questions during a news conference Friday, Nov. 4, 2016 in St. Paul, Minn. (AP Photo/Jim Mone)

In his presentation to the council, Axtell said he was "incredibly concerned" 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.

"Right now, the women and men who hold this department together are being pushed to the brink," he said. "And to put it bluntly, we're getting by on our officers' sheer resolve, their relentless commitment to victims and a bit of luck. And I worry that our good fortune will eventually run out."

The chief's proposal, which was not vetted by the city's budget office, is primarily focused on ensuring the police department is at all times staffed by 620 sworn officers — the force's authorized strength — throughout the next year and beyond.

Carter has proposed allocating $120.8 million, about 17% of the city's overall budget, to police in 2022. That amount is $1.2 million less than what the department received in 2021, but Carter's plan shifts $5.1 million from the police to other city departments taking over management of St. Paul's community ambassadors program and emergency communications center.

Last year, as the city scrambled to account for revenue losses and unexpected costs resulting from the pandemic, Carter made citywide budget cuts that included $3.7 million in attrition for police — a decision that helped the department avoid layoffs. But Axtell said as a result, the department couldn't afford to replace officers who retired or resigned, so the size of the force dwindled to 563 over the last year and a half.

Carter has proposed using $1.7 million of St. Paul's $166.6 million pool of federal American Rescue Plan dollars to backfill some — but not all — vacant positions. His budget would also add more than $2 million to the police budget to cover increased salary and benefit costs, as well as $820,000 for the department's Law Enforcement Career Path Academy, a program that aims to diversify police ranks and was previously funded mostly through grants.

"I tell folks all the time that our budget reflects our values," Carter said in an interview Wednesday. "That's why it is perplexing to me to hear a representative of the department that has received more new investment, by far, than any other city department suggest that our administration does not value that department. It seems to be a contradiction in terms."

Axtell said the mayor's proposal would not allow the department to start training new classes of cadets in anticipation of future retirements. Since the start of 2020, the department has lost 73 officers — significantly more than in recent years — and currently has 65 cadets who will finish their training in June.

"It doesn't allow us to increase any operational capacity in any form," Axtell said of Carter's proposed budget.

Axtell's presentation came on the heels of four homicides in St. Paul, where 22 people have been killed since the start of this year.

That's the same figure police reported at the end of August of 2020, which ended up being one of St. Paul's deadliest years on record.

As part of his presentation to the council, the police chief shared dozens of charts showing the uptick in crime since 2019. A new online reporting system has added more than 4,000 new calls for police service on a yearly basis, he said. Axtell described officers as "gasping for air" trying to keep up with emergency demands that have forced the department to pull employees from investigation units.

"I don't know a public servant who's not exhausted right now," due to the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting economic fallout, Carter said later Wednesday. " … The challenge that I have, uniquely, is that I don't just have to solve the problems for one city department."

For instance, he said, Axtell is proposing the city seek a federal COPS grant that would cover a portion of new hires' salaries over three years.

"That's a forever commitment of city property tax dollars," Carter said, noting that St. Paul would have to absorb the full cost of the officers' pay once the grant ran out. "We're in a place right now, frankly, where we're on the other side of the greatest economic crisis of our lifetime. And we are being very cautious and very careful with how we manage the city's finances."

The mayor has pledged $40 million of the city's federal pandemic aid for neighborhood safety, which includes the creation of an Office of Violence Prevention aiming to prevent and respond to gun violence. A city commission in May issued a number of other recommendations for how the city might better respond to low-priority 911 calls.

Carter, who is up for re-election in November, has promoted his community-first public safety agenda since he first ran for mayor in 2017.

The goal, he says, is to address the root causes of crime by investing in community supports.

While Axtell's department has teamed up to work on a number of those efforts, the police chief has been consistently raising alarms about inadequate staffing, equipment and programming.

"You don't have to look very far or hard to find other cities across the country experiencing skyrocketing crime when these approaches are funded at the expense of police service investments," Axtell said. "Of course, we would all like to live in a world where there is less need for the police, but until the data shows it's prudent to do so, it would be irresponsible to not invest in both approaches."

In response to Axtell's presentation, Council Member Mitra Jalali said she felt "astounded" that he asked for more money for policing at the expense of other city departments like parks and libraries, which she argued often face stricter financial scrutiny. She also said Axtell failed to address — or even acknowledge — concerns from residents about police brutality and systemic racism.

"We are talking about overworked, overstaffed, underfunded police officers as if there isn't an increase in the proposed budget that the mayor and his staff advanced — with the input and direction of [the St. Paul Police Department] — that does address that," she said. "Anything being talked about on top of that is really, really irresponsible."

Council Member Jane Prince disagreed, saying she has lately received a surge in calls from constituents about dangerous driving in residential neighborhoods — likely a symptom of the dismantling of the department's traffic enforcement unit, she said.

"I believe we have not made the kinds of investments in our police department that it requires," Prince said.

The council is expected to vote to set a maximum property levy increase in mid-September and approve the final budget in December.

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