Hampered by the COVID-19 pandemic, Saint Paul’s new Community First Public Safety program is being rolled out more slowly than city leaders would like. With gunshots, homicides and other criminal violence on the rise, the City Council is anxious to see progress in what was touted as one of Mayor Melvin Carter’s signature initiatives.

City Council member Rebecca Noecker of Ward 2 noted the “staggering” level of gun violence in Saint Paul this year. She said she was disappointed that some aspects of Community First Public Safety have not moved forward as planned.

Ward 7 City Council member Jane Prince agreed. “We needed this last year. We need it now more than ever,” she said.

Daniel Yang, a senior policy adviser to Carter, cautioned the City Council that there is no quick fix to the gun violence and other crimes confronting the city.

Saint Paul logged 30 homicides in the first 101/2 months of 2020—the same number as in all of 2019. The city had 34 homicides in 1992, the worst year for that statistic.

The city is now on pace for a record 77,820 “911” calls in 2020, up from the previous record of 75,852 in 2019. Part I crimes, the most serious, are up almost 12 percent this year, approaching 11,000. Reports of shots fired have increased more than 117 percent. Aggravated assaults and reports of people struck and injured by gunfire are also up.

Community First Public Safety is a nontraditional approach to fighting crime and violence—one that is less reactive and intended to have a more lasting effect. City staff began meeting in March to implement the program. However, the pandemic and the civil unrest following George Floyd’s death hindered its progress.

 

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Community First Public Safety is a nontraditional approach to fighting crime and violence—one that is less reactive and intended to have a more lasting effect. City staff began meeting in March to implement the program. However, the pandemic and the civil unrest following George Floyd’s death hindered its progress.

The drop in city revenue caused by the pandemic and the COVID-related shutdowns have also cut into the program’s budget. According to city budget director Susan Earle, the city’s allocation to Community First was reduced from $1.7 million to $1.25 million in 2020. Its budget for 2021 is a proposed $1.44 million.

Among the Community First Public Safety initiatives taking financial hits this year are restorative justice and the Right Track youth employment program. Community First initiatives that are still underway include the downtown “fusion center” for a coordinated response to local crime, a youth-focused program through the Parks and Recreation Department and targeted efforts to improve pedestrian safety.

One initiative in which council members especially wanted to see progress is Healing Streets. That effort is intended to address violence as a health issue, bringing in community partners to reduce the impact of violence through prevention, intervention and support for citizens in a crisis or experiencing grief.

Mark Campbell is leading the Healing Streets effort. According to him, it has been hampered by the high insurance costs for prospective staff. The city has lowered those costs by hiring temporary staff instead, Campbell said.

Progress has been made in the Community Ambassadors program, a collaboration with the Saint Paul Police Department that began in 2013 in response to an increase in youth crime. Community ambassadors focus on building relationships with at-risk youths by, among other things, helping them find jobs and needed services. The program has expanded from 35 to 50 ambassadors. They are out on the streets reaching out to young people in the Midway, North End, Frogtown and SunRay neighborhoods, according to Joel Franklin, who leads the program.

City Council members Amy Brendmoen of Ward 5 and Mitra Jalali of Ward 4 praised the Community Ambassadors program, saying that it reaches youths in their wards in a way that young people can relate to.

“We’ve wanted to do even more direct support, but that’s hard to get going with COVID,” Franklin said.

According to Yang and Deputy Police Chief Matt Toupal, there are five police grids in the city where crime has especially spiked. They are located in Frogtown, the East Side and downtown, they said, and it is in those grids that the city has stepped up efforts to quell crime through such methods as restorative justice and Healing Streets.

— Jane McClure

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