City Council is divided over the best approach in St. Paul

By Jane McClure

Police reform will be taken up by the St. Paul City Council in a policy session beginning at 10 a.m. Thursday, June 25. While a majority of Minneapolis City Council members have called for disbanding that city’s police department, that is not the case in St. Paul.

In Ward 6, City Council member Nelsie Yang supports disbanding the St. Paul police force, but Ward 4’s Mitra Jalali has spoken for a more gradual shift of resources to community-based alternatives. Other City Council members would rather see the city step up its ongoing efforts at police reform, a move supported by Police Chief Todd Axtell.

Ward 2 City Council member Rebecca Noecker joined District 65 Senator Sandy Pappas and District 65B Representative Carlos Mariani in an online forum on police reform on June 11. The new push comes in the wake of the killing of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police on May 25, a death that has led to worldwide outrage over police brutality, especially when it comes to black suspects.

   

Mayor Melvin Carter spoke of the racial disparities that he and other people of color have experienced all of their lives and the distrust that creates. He also emphasized the need for police officers to understand the communities they serve.

The St. Paul Police Department has already made changes in its use of force and K-9 policies. Social workers now accompany police when responding to calls for people in crisis. So-called community ambassadors are being hired to reach out to young people, and restorative justice is being pursued for nonviolent offenders. St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter also pushed through a $1.7 million Community First Public Safety initiative as part of the city’s 2020 budget. Much of that program has yet to be implemented, and that has frustrated City Council members who would like to see the program up and running.

The advocacy group Root and Restore St. Paul has called on the City Council to cut the Police Department’s $105 million budget by $20 million and redirect that money elsewhere. An online petition by that group is getting thousands of signatures. “Now in Minneapolis and around the nation, we’re seeing a broad uprising of people and politicians who are acknowledging that our system of policing is not reformable,” Root & Restore said in statement. 

 

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Complicating the police funding issue is the COVID-19 pandemic, which has caused losses in city property and sales tax revenue. The city could be saddled with a deficit of $34 million or more as a result, and that would likely mean program and service cuts in every city department.

Carter and City Council members have been following the current efforts at police reform by the state and federal governments. The Minnesota Legislature debated the issue last week in a special session, but had not reached agreement on any legislation as of the Villager’s deadline. Among the proposals at the Capitol were additional police officer training, more background checks on prospective police officers, new methods for addressing mental health crises and changes in use of force policies. 

According to Mariani, people need to keep talking about what happened to Floyd and others at the hands of law enforcement. “When we stop talking about what happened to George Floyd, we start losing this fight,” he said. Mariani, Pappas and Noecker all said that it is crucial to put citizens and their ideas at the center of discussions if society is to reform the police and address systemic racism.

President Donald Trump signed an executive order on June 16 establishing a federal database to track police officers with a history of complaints for the use of excessive force. The executive order encourages law enforcement agencies to use best practices and creates financial incentives for doing so. The president also wants more programs that assign mental health professionals and social workers to assist law enforcement in emergency calls involving people who are homeless, mentally ill or chemically dependent.

Mayor Carter addressed police reform before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee via video link on June 16. He told the committee of his background as the son of a St. Paul police officer and testified in support of the proposed Justice in Policing Act. That act includes provisions to streamline the prosecution of officers accused of using excessive force. It would also set national standards for law enforcement, require more data collection and tracking, and provide more money for community-based policing and alternative policing.

Carter spoke of the racial disparities that he and other people of color have experienced all of their lives and the distrust that creates. He also emphasized the need for police officers to understand the communities they serve. Police officers who get to know the people they come across on patrol can “come up with a whole lot of reasons not to shoot someone,” Carter said.

To watch the St. Paul City Council’s policy session on police reform, visit https://stpaul.legistar.com/Calendar.aspx.

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