Council members worry about loss of sworn officers, department diversity
By Jane McClure
Saint Paul’s police force could be smaller and less diverse if proposed cuts to the 2021 city budget become a reality. However, City Council members on September 16 asked Chief Todd Axtell to find other ways to trim as much as $3.8 million from the police budget besides reducing personnel.
Council members expressed concern that recent gains in diversifying the city’s police force will be lost. The reductions also would come at a time of rising 911 calls. Saint Paul had a historically high level of 911 calls in 2019 at about 75,000, Axtell said, and is on track for almost 80,000 calls this year.
“I’m concerned about our capacity to deliver service,” Axtell said. According to him, more calls and fewer personnel will mean longer response times, more officer stress and the elimination of some programs.
Saint Paul is seeing an uptick in major crimes in 2020. There have been 24 homicides this year compared to 19 at this time in 2019. Robberies have jumped from 379 to 513, and aggravated assaults from 569 to 776 during that same time period.
The COVID-19 pandemic and the desire to hold down spending is forcing all city departments to freeze hires and make cuts. Mayor Melvin Carter’s 2021 police budget is $104.7 million, compared to $105.5 million adopted for 2020, an $800,000 reduction.
However, Axtell said the reduction is in reality closer to $3.8 million, since he estimated the need for a police budget of $108.5 million in 2021. He is looking at the cost of moving seven school resource officers back to the general fund now that the Saint Paul Public Schools has severed its police contract with the city. He is also facing staff contract and cost-of-living salary increases, and is considering not hiring officers as positions become vacant.
Carter has estimated that 10 positions would be lost, while Axtell said it could be up to 31. Other reductions include four civilian positions and three sergeants in the technology division and three parking enforcement officers.
Axtell noted that the Police Department already has made $1 million in spending cuts in 2020, including shelving a police training academy that was set to begin this fall. His department has almost $2.6 million in 2020 spending that could be reimbursed through the federal CARES Act, which provides assistance to cities during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, that money is not assured as many city departments are vying for the same funds.
The 2020 cuts come on top of additional police spending this year, such as $3 million to deal with the civil unrest that occurred in the city in the wake of the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
Axtell said the city’s fiscal constraints could hamper the goal of creating a more diverse department. The police just lost one of three community liaison officers, who do translations and other tasks, to another agency. And the eight students who completed the 2020 Law Enforcement Career Path Academy, a program of AmeriCorps, were just let go.
“I’m concerned about our capacity to deliver service,” Axtell said.
Axtell said the city’s reduction in hiring comes at a time when an unprecedented diversity of officer candidates is available. The loss of those candidates, many of whom are from low-income families, also worries several City Council members. “They’re changing the way that people look at our police, and they’re changing the way the police look,” said council president Amy Brendmoen.
The city’s sworn police personnel would drop from 630 this year to 620. However, with various military and medical leaves and no police academies in 2020 and 2021, Axtell said that number could be closer to 591 by the end of next year. New officers could not be on the street until May or June 2022.
Council members asked for additional historical data, saying they need to see past police attrition trends.
Brendmoen asked if any other police costs could be put on hold for a year. The department has already dropped its motorcycle and mounted patrols and its FORCE unit, which concentrated resources at specific locations.
Axtell said his department’s budget has only about $400,000 in discretionary spending. Some purchases, such as squad cars, can be delayed, he said, but putting them off could also mean higher costs down the road.
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