2020-09-16 16:55:16 –
As St. Paul Police Chief Todd Axtell sounded the alarm about reducing the department by approximately 40 officers due to budget constraints, some city council members Wednesday questioned why he couldn’t look for cuts in other places.
There are not plans to lay off officers, but vacant positions wouldn’t be filled. It’s the same situation in other St. Paul departments, as the city responds to the fiscal challenges from the coronavirus pandemic. There is not a property tax levy increase in Mayor Melvin Carter’s proposed budget for 2021.
“Is there a unit, is there something that can be iced for a year or two?,” City Council President Amy Brendmoen asked Axtell as he talked about the proposed budget. “… We are having these same challenging conversations with every department.”
Axtell said there is only about $400,000 in discretionary spending in the department’s budget and making a move like reducing the number of squad cars could lead to large costs down the line. Approximately 90 percent of the $106 million budget this year is for salaries. There are also set costs for contracts with the 911 center and for body-worn cameras.
“Reducing our strength will have direct outcomes,” Axtell said. “At a time when police departments have no margin for error, I am certainly concerned about this.”
In Minneapolis, where city council members said they wanted to defund the police after George Floyd died in police custody in May, they questioned the police chief on Tuesday about what the department was doing to address shootings, carjackings and robberies.
CHIEF: STAFFING WOULD BE AT PRE-2007 LEVEL
Carter’s proposed budget for police next year is a reduction of $801,000. But Axtell says it amounts to a $3.8 million cut, based on what it would have cost to run the department at the same level as this year. That’s mostly due to contractually-obligated cost-of-living salary increases for employees, which is also the case in other St. Paul departments.
St. Paul police’s authorized strength is 630 officers this year. The proposed budget would officially reduce authorized strength by 10 officers and the department would need to keep open the equivalent of at least 31 officer positions.
“We will be staffed to a level of pre-2007 — this … was a time when our population was 279,470,” Axtell said, compared to the population estimate last year of 308,096. “A time when the city had no light rail, no soccer stadium, crime was much different as we had 16 homicides that year.”
There have been 24 homicides so far this year. Most other crime categories are up in 2020, compared to the same time last year — reports of shots-fired by 122 percent, aggravated assault by 36 percent and robbery by 35 percent.
In the years when the number of officers were increasing, City Council Member Mitra Jalali asked if there was “a meaningful impact on reducing crime data over that time period.”
Axtell said he believes violent crime reduced over many of those years.
There is already more work than officers can adequately handle, Axtell said. He said there were more 911 calls last year in the city’s history and the numbers this year are on pace to surpass last year by a couple thousand calls.
Jalali cautioned about drawing conclusions from the 911 statistics and said it’s important to have a clearer sense of what the numbers mean.
“As we’re making decisions, I think conflating demands on 911 with amount of actual crime, making false correlations between the sworn strength and then whether or not crime has been reduced, all that data’s important to parse accurately,” she said. “… Normal population growth does mean there will just be more people calling 911.”
LOSING DIVERSE CANDIDATES
Axtell said he had to cancel the police academy for this year, which would have brought on more officers, and doesn’t know if he’ll be able to have one in 2021. If there is funding for an academy at the end of next year, new officers couldn’t be on the streets until May or June 2022, Axtell said.
Calling off this year’s academy means eight recent graduates from the most recent Law Enforcement Career Path Academy — geared toward people from low-income families and diverse candidates — won’t be able to become St. Paul officers this year as planned. The department informed them in August, and they are looking for and receiving offers from other departments, Axtell said.
After so much investment in preparing them to be St. Paul officers, Brendmoen and Council Member Jane Prince said they don’t want to lose them.
“They are changing the way that people look at our police and they are changing the way the police look,” Brendmoen said. “… It is a priority of mine to continue moving forward with this talented group of people.”