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Minn. city considers redirecting lowest priority 911 calls

St. Paul City Council is expected to pass a resolution this week that will lead to auditing routine 911 calls

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St. Paul Police Department

By Emma Nelson
Star Tribune

SAINT PAUL, Minn. — St. Paul leaders want to rethink how the city responds to the lowest priority 911 calls as part of an ongoing push to reimagine traditional approaches to public safety.

The City Council is expected to pass a resolution Wednesday calling for a community-first public safety commission to set “a vision for public safety moving forward.” That work will include auditing routine 911 calls — things like disorderly conduct, barking dogs and parking complaints — and coming up with new ways to respond to them, as well as considering the creation of a city office that would oversee community-first public safety programs.

“I’ve been hearing loud and clear from my constituents, ever since the murder of George Floyd and the protests this summer, that they are not interested in piecemeal reform anymore — that they want us to take a completely systemic look at how we are ensuring public safety,” said Council Member Rebecca Noecker. “And this resolution is the beginning of that.”

In an interview Friday, Mayor Melvin Carter said the council resolution, which he is expected to announce in more detail early next week, will establish a direction for the city to take on public safety reform in coming years.

“The system that we’re talking about changing has roots that go back over 100 years,” he said. “To suggest that they can be flipped on and off or completely transformed at the flip of a light switch or the pressing of a button is an oversimplification of the task in front of us.”

Floyd’s death in May at the hands of Minneapolis police added urgency to work already underway in St. Paul to change the relationship between residents and law enforcement. That includes Carter’s $1.7 million 2020 public safety budget — spending the mayor’s office will provide an update on at Wednesday’s council meeting — and efforts by the police department itself.

Police Department spokesman Steve Linders said in a statement that the council resolution that he said Chief Todd Axtell saw for the first time on Friday “looks like an effort to build on the department’s success.”

“As a national leader in law enforcement, [Axtell has] made it a departmentwide priority to put the community first in every effort related to prevention, intervention and enforcement — from updating the use of force policy to developing the Mental Health Unit to mandatory Moral Courage training and much, much more,” Linders said.

Axtell has raised concerns in recent years about police staffing and the department’s ability to respond to a rising number of 911 calls. In budget presentations to the council this fall, Axtell said the department is projecting an all-time high of 77,820 911 calls in 2020.

Council President Amy Brendmoen said the police department is aware of the planned 911 audit and that redirecting the lowest-priority calls to someone than armed officers — to social workers, for example — would free up police time.

“Like teachers, police are really being asked to do everything these days,” she said, “and it’s not fair to them, either.”

The commission will report back to Carter and the City Council by May 3, in time to include their recommendations in the 2022 budget. It’s similar to how the council has approached housing issues, building new policies over time from a 2018 resolution that called for the creation of an advisory board and a new staff position.

“I view this as a culmination of years of work the city has tried to do on advancing a community-first public safety framework,” said Council Member Mitra Jalali. “It’s really meant to reflect a work-in-progress effort that … incorporates what we’ve heard over and over from impacted community about what they aspire to have in our city.”

(c)2020 the Star Tribune (Minneapolis)