Axtell disputes mayor’s notion of what is needed to restore ranks of police.

Rising crime and reductions in the ranks of the police have put Saint Paul Police Chief Todd Axtell and Mayor Melvin Carter at odds over the size of the Police Department’s budget for 2022. Axtell asked for an additional $3.1 million for personnel in a September 1 presentation to the City Council. His request met a mixed response from council members. Some vehemently opposed any more police spending, and others said their constituents want more police on the street.

Carter has included $1.77 million in his proposed 2022 city budget to hire more police officers. The Police Department is authorized to have as many as 620 officers, but due to attrition it now has 563 officers and could have as few as 535 by the end of this year. Axtell cited a study from 2019 that indicated a national average of 2.4 police officers for every 1,000 residents in a city. Saint Paul’s population is just over 310,000. At 2.4 officers per 1,000 residents, that would give the city 744 officers.

The police chief contends that what the mayor has budgeted will not be enough to fill the vacancies in his department. “Right now, the women and men who hold this department together are being pushed to the brink,” Axtell said. “To put it bluntly, we’re getting by on our officers’ sheer resolve, their relentless commitment to victims and a bit of luck. And I worry that our good fortune will eventually run out.”

Police officers now have to rush from one call to another and cannot give citizens the attention they deserve, Axtell said. Some of their efforts at community engagement have had to be dropped, he said, and the purchases of new vests, helmets, police radios, and SWAT team and bike patrol equipment have had to be delayed.

   

The Police Department sustained $3.7 million in budget cuts in 2020, when every city department was making cuts to avoid layoffs. The police training academy was cancelled in 2020 as a cost-saving measure, and the department has not hired any new officers since 2019. Meanwhile, many officers are retiring or changing careers, some due to medical reasons, including post-traumatic stress disorder.

Todd Axtell
Saint Paul Police Chief Todd Axtell

Police across the county have been under the microscope since the murder of George Floyd in May 2020 while in the custody of the Minneapolis police. The city of Saint Paul has already conducted an extensive study of alternatives to traditional policing. A new Office of Neighborhood Safety and other public safety measures are being implemented.

City Council member Mitra Jalali said she was “astounded” by Axtell’s request for more money and his lack of attention to the issues of police brutality and racism. According to her, there is more than adequate funding for police in the 2022 city budget, and to suggest otherwise is irresponsible.

 

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Ward 4 City Council member Mitra Jalali tore into Axtell during his September 1 presentation. According to her, the Police Department should not be asking for more money when other city departments “are begging for scraps.” Jalali said she was “astounded” by Axtell’s request for more money and his lack of attention to the issues of police brutality and racism. According to her, there is more than adequate funding for police in the 2022 city budget, and to suggest otherwise is irresponsible.

Other council members defended Axtell’s position, saying that while their constituents would like to see alternative responses to some police calls, they are also demanding more officers on the street. “I haven’t heard anyone say we should cut police,” said Ward 7 council member Jane Prince.

Prince bemoaned the loss of the Police Department’s traffic unit and its FORCE unit, which targeted the root causes of crime by helping enforce the city’s property code. FORCE, the police’s mounted patrol and other resources have been eliminated over the years to put more officers on the streets. “We haven’t made the kinds of investments in our Police Department that it requires,” Prince said.

When outside grants, special funds and fees are included, the mayor’s police budget for 2022 is $120,807,668, which is $1.2 million less than the total police budget for 2021. However, the mayor is also moving the expenses of emergency communications and community ambassadors to other city departments.

Carter’s staff appeared before the City Council on September 8 to defend the mayor’s proposed police budget. According to them, the money is enough to employ as many as 619 officers in 2022.

Carter has proposed a general fund budget of $104,027,529 for the Police Department in 2022. That is down about $754,000 from 2021. When outside grants, special funds and fees are included, the mayor’s police budget for 2022 is $120,807,668, which is $1.2 million less than the total police budget for 2021. However, the mayor is also moving the expenses of emergency communications and community ambassadors to other city departments.

The Police Department plans to have 65 new cadets enrolled in the training academy by the middle of 2022. According to Axtell, the mayor’s budget is not enough to cover the costs of training and hiring the new cadets. “It doesn’t allow us to increase any operational capacity in any form,” he said.

Axtell discussed other funding sources with the City Council. For example, Saint Paul gets a share of parking ticket revenue from Ramsey County. While that typically goes into the general fund, Axtell suggested diverting $2.34 million to police hiring. However, state law prohibits law enforcement agencies from using parking and traffic tickets to generate revenue.

Axtell is seeking a federal COPS grant—an allocation of $1.25 million per year for three years to partially cover police salaries. However, that would require an additional $3.1 million in city spending, and after three years the city would have to cover the entire amount or cut positions.

The use of federal American Rescue Plan funds was also suggested, but those funds are only available until 2024.

— Jane McClure

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