Department will have to forfeit the very programs citizens want from police

By Jane Prince

When Todd Axtell became Saint Paul’s chief of police in 2016, among his top priorities was the creation of the Community Engagement Unit (CEU), in his words, “to make deposits in our community’s bank of trust.” At the time it was a bold move, a paradigm shift. And as we now know, it was a prescient investment that has paid dividends time and again.

Last month, Mayor Melvin Carter ordered the chief to propose a way to cut $9.2 million from the 2021 budget of the Saint Paul Police Department (SPPD). While every city department has been given a target to cut, this is the only portion of the mayor’s proposed 2021 cuts that has come to light. That amount is nearly 10 percent of the SPPD budget, 89 percent of which pays for personnel. This leaves Chief Axtell with few options.

With almost every crime index up significantly this year over last (shots fired are up 90 percent over 2019), Chief Axtell can’t make cuts to police patrols, which are already at barebones levels. It should concern all of us that the cuts the chief will be forced to make are exactly the innovative, 21st-century policing initiatives that have been the hallmark of his administration—the very strategies that make Saint Paul’s Police Department different from Minneapolis’ and that communities are demanding in every American city since the tragic murder of George Floyd.

St. Paul City Council member Jane Prince

This will be a huge loss to Saint Paul. Axtell’s Community Engagement Unit is about more than handshakes, hugs and handing out hot dogs. Its focus is on forging relationships with Saint Paul’s multicultural communities, the very people who, sadly, are disproportionately victimized. It uses “community liaisons”— civilian employees who reach out to each of Saint Paul’s diverse communities, connecting kids and families with resources, promoting neighborhood safety and doing the really hard relationship-building that many people talk about but few are willing to do.

Think it’s fluff? Then think about the immigrant communities who are facing overzealous federal enforcement by ICE and Homeland Security. For our neighbors whose reality involves the very real and unjust possibility of deportation, their relationships with these SPPD employees have been a lifeline they can trust.

And it doesn’t stop there.

And then there’s the crime. What happens when the SPPD is forced to cut 10 percent of its budget in the middle of the city’s most serious violent crime wave in its history? The chief will have no choice but to cut the very programs that have distinguished Saint Paul as the gold standard in policing.

One of the most notable CEU achievements has been the creation of the Law Enforcement Career Path Academy (LECPA), which recruits diverse young adults to work in the Community Engagement Unit as Americorps volunteers while they earn their law enforcement degree at Century College. It’s a rigorous three-year program, and by the end of it these young people have the skills, knowledge and connections to our community to join the Police Academy.

The first nine LECPA graduates were sworn in as police officers in January as part of the SPPD’s most diverse academy class ever. Seventy-seven percent of that class were women and people of color. “Diversify the department and hire people who live in Saint Paul!” That is what the community said, and Chief Axtell responded.

If Chief Axtell has to cut police officers, union contracts require that the last hired are the first to be laid off. So it’s likely this most diverse class ever will be cut from the SPPD.

According to the chief, every new recruit should spend his or her first year in the Community Engagement Unit to create a whole new culture of policing. But that is a far-off dream if this innovative program is cut from the police budget.

What about the SPPD Coast Unit, the Community Outreach and Stabilization Team? This is the SPPD’s mental health co-responder program, which embeds social workers with officers trained in crisis and trauma intervention. It includes the officers who stand shoulder to shoulder with mental health professionals trying to help our vast and growing homeless community, people with untreated mental illnesses, chemical dependency problems or posttraumatic stress disorder. This is the type of work cities across the country are begging their police departments to do, and I’m afraid we’re putting it at risk.

And then there’s the crime. What happens when the SPPD is forced to cut 10 percent of its budget in the middle of the city’s most serious violent crime wave in its history? The chief will have no choice but to cut the very programs that have distinguished Saint Paul as the gold standard in policing.

Saint Paul is facing a serious budget crisis; the SPPD will need to absorb cuts along with every other city department. But if you share my concern about maintaining the progress that has been achieved by Chief Axtell and the SPPD, please join me in making your voice heard.

Jane Prince is a member of the Saint Paul City Council. She represents Ward 7.

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