Saint Paul City Council members voted unanimously on November 18 to establish a 40-person Community First Public Safety Commission and provide it with a $71,200 budget. Plans for the commission had been announced the previous day by Mayor Melvin Carter. The group will be led by the nonprofit Citizens League and is expected to wrap up its work in May. That in turn will inform the city’s 2022 budget process.

The commission is an outgrowth of this year’s $1.7 million Community First Public Safety program, which was a late addition to the 2020 city budget in response to rising crime rates. Some City Council members, although mindful of the pandemic’s impact on city services, have been impatient about the program’s slow launch.

“Now more than ever, amid the many crises we face, re-envisioning emergency response is a critical step toward realizing safer outcomes,” Carter said. “This commission will help us expand our Community First Public Safety framework and further chart a path forward for our community.”

As of November 24, Saint Paul had 30 homicides in 2020, equaling the total for all of 2019. Rising rates of gunshot injuries and other crimes have roiled many neighborhoods. Incidents of gun violence have risen nationally during the COVID-19 pandemic and in the wake of the death of George Floyd while the custody of Minneapolis Police.

Citizens League executive director Kate Cimino said the league is not coming in with a predetermined solution to the issues facing the city, but will work to gather diverse perspectives on them. A few years ago the league led the city’s research on raising the minimum wage.

Carter hopes to announce his commission picks soon. He said the group will represent a broad spectrum of the city. City Council members are already pushing for some groups to be represented, including the Black Ministerial Alliance and those who live in neighborhoods hit hardest by crime.

“Now more than ever, amid the many crises we face, re-envisioning emergency response is a critical step toward realizing safer outcomes,” Carter said. “This commission will help us expand our Community First Public Safety framework and further chart a path forward for our community.”

The mayor also emphasized that the commission’s work will be ongoing, and that continued responses to issues of violence and policing are needed. In his 2021 budget talks, the mayor called for mental health workers, housing counselors, social workers and other non-law enforcement experts to work with police on some calls.

A major focus for the commission will be on 911 calls and new ways to respond to many types of lower-priority calls. Police in recent years have already shifted calls such as property damage, auto accidents and theft to online reporting. Lower-priority calls now being eyed for change include parking complaints, shoplifters held by store personnel, and barking dogs.

Police Chief Todd Axtell said he supports the commission and its study of 911 calls, saying that other means of responding frees up police officers for more urgent calls.

The push to redirect 911 calls comes at a time when the Police Department faces rising calls and cuts in its officer ranks. Axtell has estimated that there will be a record number of 911 calls in 2020—about 77,820.

The commission will also look at creating a separate city office to oversee Community First Public Safety, and possibly an office of violence prevention.

City Council members unanimously supported the commission and praised its co-chairs and the involvement of the Citizens League. The co-chairs are John Marshall, Xcel Energy’s director of community relations, and Acooa Ellis, a senior vice president of the Greater Twin Cities United Way. They both are former City Council legislative aides. Marshall worked for Pat Harris in Ward 3 and Ellis for Carter when he represented Ward 1.

—Jane McClure

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