Todd Axtell’s tenure as Saint Paul police chief ends on June 1, but his legacy will live on through his efforts to build the public’s trust, diversify the police department, expand opportunities for law enforcement careers and lead through particularly challenging times.
“It’s been such a calling for me to serve Saint Paul as police chief for the last six years,” he said. “I’ve embraced and enjoyed every minute of it.”
Axtell announced last October that he would not be seeking a second term as chief. The decision was not easy, he said, and was only made after several months of “deep reflection.”
“There’s no greater responsibility than protecting people, seeking justice for victims and working to keep police officers safe as they rush into the unknown to help others,” Axtell wrote in announcing his resignation. “It has been a wonderful and trying experience, one I will forever cherish. The trust bestowed upon me by this city is truly humbling.”
Then as now, Axtell was frank in discussing the pressing challenges facing the police department. Civil unrest in the wake of the 2020 murder of George Floyd stretched his department’s resources and caused millions of dollars in property damage in Saint Paul. The COVID-19 pandemic has posed an array of issues. Concurrent with those has been an increase in homicides, gun violence, catalytic converter thefts and carjackings.
Axtell has butted heads with city officials as he sought more resources for the Police Department. Although they have not always agreed, elected officials praised Axtell’s performance.
“From a global pandemic and civil unrest to a nationwide crime surge, Chief Axtell has been a steady hand through some of Saint Paul’s most challenging moments,” said Mayor Melvin Carter. “I’m grateful for his lifetime of service to our city and enormously proud of our work to build a department that is stronger and more deeply connected to the communities we serve than ever before.”
“Chief Axtell is an exemplary servant leader,” said Ward 2 City Council member Rebecca Noecker. “He knows and loves Saint Paul, he walks the walk of authentic community engagement, and he has made courageous choices to move the department in the direction that our community needs and expects. His focus on de-escalation, mental health and crisis intervention training, genuine relationships with the community and intentional recruitment and retention of diverse officers have led his department to embody its motto—‘Trusted Service With Respect.’ He’ll be missed, but his vision will live on.”
“Todd Axtell has been an amazing police chief and leader in Saint Paul,” said Ward 3 City Council member Chris Tolbert. “He has led the police department during a pivotal time in policing in America, and has shown through example how a modern and reformed police department should provide trusted service with respect to all of our residents.”
“Chief Axtell has been an outstanding advocate and friend of the Hmong, Southeast Asian and immigrant and refugee communities in Saint Paul,” said May yer Thao, president and CEO of the Hmong American Partnership. “The success of our communities is because of his leadership, his vision and his commitment to elevate the voices of the disenfranchised. The chief puts community and people first, and we’ll be forever grateful for his championship and the many lives he has touched.”
Inspired by his grandfather to become a cop.
Axtell credited his parents for his guiding principles and laying the foundation for his life’s work. His family moved around Minnesota while he was growing up. At times he called Northfield, Silver Bay and Brainerd home.
He said his inspiration for a career in law enforcement came from his grandfather, who was a police officer in Silver Bay. His grandfather died of a heart attack when Axtell was still a toddler, but the stories of his grandfather’s kindness and commitment to public service enthralled young Todd.
Axtell earned a two-year degree in law enforcement at Alexandria Technical College. His first job as a police officer was in Breezy Point and Pequot Lakes. He later earned a master’s degree in police leadership, administration and education at the University of Saint Thomas.
Thirty-three years in the SPPD.
Axtell joined the Saint Paul Police Department in 1989. He became a watch commander in 2008. He also served as a commander of support services and homeland security, Western District commander and assistant police chief.
Highland District Council executive director Kathy Carruth said Axtell will be missed. “He’s just been outstanding to work with,” she said. “He’s always been responsive and able to help district councils deal with issues in our neighborhoods.”
Axtell was on the police force in August 1994 when a drifter ambushed and killed Saint Paul officers Ron Ryan Jr. and Tim Jones and Jones’ canine partner Laser. He also suffered the loss of fellow police officer and friend Gerald “Jerry” Vick, who was shot and killed in 2005 while working undercover in Saint Paul.
Much has changed in Axtell’s years on the force. “The constant evolution of technology has very much impacted how we do our jobs,” he said. Another change that he will not miss is the prevalence of social media and the spread of misinformation.
A culture of community engagement.
What has stayed the same is the strong culture of community engagement in the police department, Axtell said. He credited his predecessors and other leaders in the police department for instilling that culture. “We see people when they are really suffering and are at the worst moments of their lives,” he said. “That requires a level of empathy and humanity.”
Saint Paul’s former police chiefs challenged him and made him a better professional, Axtell said. “Every one of the chiefs I worked under left the department better than they found it,” he said. “I hope to have done the same.”
Axtell is not retiring. He anticipates starting a consulting business, to pay forward what he has learned in his years in law enforcement. He also will be spending more time with family, including his parents, wife Lisa, his two adult children and seven grandchildren.
“It’s been bittersweet,” Axtell said of his final days in office.
— Jane McClure
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