Commission suggests new city office, prioritization of police calls

A new neighborhood safety office and changes in how some police calls for service are handled are among the key recommendations from Saint Paul’s Community First Public Safety Commission. City Council members on May 19 heard the commission’s recommendations, which followed a six-month study process facilitated by the Citizens League.

The 48-member commission was appointed last year by Mayor Melvin Carter. Council members hope to use the group’s recommendations to help shape the future of public safety in the city and how it is supported.

The commission also looked at how to foster ongoing involvement in the Community First Public Safety Program. The program includes efforts ranging from community ambassadors to healing circles in approaching crime prevention by addressing the root causes of misconduct.

Commission co-chairs John Marshall of Xcel Energy and Acooa Ellis of the United Way of the Greater Twin Cities praised the study process and its outcomes.

“I’m proud of the work we did,” Marshall said. He noted that the commission took on very complex issues while creating an opportunity for people with many different opinions to share their ideas.

Ellis said she is excited to see what possibilities the report brings forward, and urged elected leaders to think more comprehensively about public safety.

“Saint Paul and the Twin Cities are at the epicenter for meaningful change on this topic,” she said. “The eyes of the country, if not the world, are watching us.”  

 

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Focuses for the commission included ways to look at how lower-priority calls for assistance could be handled in ways other than sending the police. The aim is to defuse some situations and free up police to focus on higher-priority calls.

“Saint Paul and the Twin Cities are at the epicenter for meaningful change on this topic,” Acooa Ellis said. “The eyes of the country, if not the world, are watching us.”  

Amanda Koonjbeharry, the Citizens League’s director of public policy, said the commission reviewed how police calls are currently prioritized. The commission scrutinized calls for child abuse, welfare checks, disorderly conduct, people in crisis, civil matters, motor vehicle thefts, property damage, motor vehicle accidents and calls involving juveniles. Saint Paul police already have a mobile unit for mental health-related calls and work closely with social workers.

Another focus of the study was on how police traffic stops should be addressed. That issue drew more attention after the death of Daunte Wright, who was fatally shot by a police officer this spring during a traffic stop in Brooklyn Center.

Some commission members said Saint Paul police should only conduct traffic stops for more serious violations, such as DWIs, hit-and-run accidents and speeding. Stops for equipment or minor traffic violations and expired license tabs would be eliminated.

The commission suggested the use of cameras and mailed notices to those running red lights. However, state law prohibits the cameras, also known as “photo cop.”

It is unknown what the recommended changes would cost, and how funds would be allocated in the 2022 city budget. For comparison, Minneapolis spent $7.4 million this year for its Office of Violence Prevention. That office could be a model for a Saint Paul Office of Neighborhood Safety. Such an office had strong support among commission members.

One possibility for funding is through the federal American Rescue Plan.

Record gun violence and 34 homicides in Saint Paul in 2020, coupled with demands for law enforcement reform in the wake of deaths at the hands of police nationwide, are driving the calls for change.

Seventy-eight people had been shot in the city as of mid-May, at least nine of them fatally. While that is an increase from May 2020, what has really risen in Saint Paul are the number of calls for shots fired. Those totaled 820 as of last week, as compared to 484 by mid-May 2020.

— Jane McClure

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