Police staffing and increased calls for service are front and center in Saint Paul’s 2021 budget deliberations. Police Chief Todd Axtell said police officers are dealing with a rising number of 911 calls even as they face cuts in the sworn members ranks. However, some City Council members said during an October 14 budget review that other ways must be found to respond to calls for service instead of always sending police. They also said hiring more police officers has not resulted in a downturn in crime in the past.
Saint Paul had a record number of 911 calls in 2019 at 75,852 and is on track for 77,820 this year. The city also is seeing nearly a 12 percent increase in major crimes. There have been 27 homicides so far this year compared to 23 at this time in 2019. Aggravated assaults have jumped to 827 from 605, and shots fired calls to 1,719 from 790.
The city also has had around 160 gunshot wound victims so far in 2020, compared to 122 at this time last year. Eighty-three percent of the victims were male and 69 percent were African American. Crime victims also disproportionately remain people of color, Axtell said.
Council member Rebecca Noecker expressed concern about the rise in crime, calling the 30 percent increase in shootings “beyond alarming.” However, she and other council members questioned if adding officers has had an effect in lowering crime rates.
“Certainly, I know that simply having more police officers doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re going to reduce crime,” Axtell said. Still, he emphasized that the department needs enough officers to respond to calls in a timely manner, and to build trust and confidence in police.
Council member Mitra Jalali spoke for a future public safety model in which police are not the only first responders, with a focus on mental health and other resources for people in crisis. That has also been a theme for Mayor Melvin Carter in his 2021 budget.
Axtell responded that ways to better work with public partners are currently being studied by a police-community working group, so that police officers can give more attention to the most serious calls.
For 2021, the Police Department has a proposed budget of $104.7 million in general funds and almost $17.6 million in special funds. That is down more than $1 million from this year.
“Certainly, I know that simply having more police officers doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re going to reduce crime,” Axtell said.
The Police Department’s number of authorized officers is expected to drop from 630 this year to 620 in 2021. The department currently has 618 officers and Axtell said the police ranks could be down by at least 36 by the end of next year. Like other city departments, police face a tight cap on hiring. Axtell has already canceled a police officer training academy originally scheduled for this year.
Council members and Axtell debated how officers are assigned. The chief said his top priority is having officers respond to 911 calls. That means moving officers out of other areas, including traffic and pedestrian calls, youth and community outreach, property crimes and drug crimes.
It could also mean taking officers out of the mental health unit where they are assigned to work with social workers. It has already meant eliminating the FORCE unit, which took a multifaceted approach to problem properties and the people who live there.
Axtell said that where the Police Department has been able to maintain or add staff, it has seen positive results. One example is the homicide unit, where charges have been filed in 23 of 27 murders this year.
The chief added that the Police Department has also taken on several other programs and costs in recent years, including the use of body cameras and the community ambassadors program. Body cameras alone had a cost of about $1 million in 2019.
“Obviously, we can’t cut our body camera program as it’s vital to the trust and transparency for out community,” Axtell said. However, he said the department has to make cuts to other programs to pay for uncovered costs.
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