St. Paul chief paints grim picture of ‘incredibly overworked’ police department

Police Chief Todd Axtell said he has "discontinued" the traffic enforcement unit so he has "enough people to respond to 911 calls."

St. Paul Police Chief Todd Axtell speaks at a press conference. (Operation Safety Net/YouTube)

St. Paul police officers “are being pushed to the brink” as they grapple with high turnover and record crime rates, the chief of police told a St. Paul City Council committee Wednesday.

Police Chief Todd Axtell’s budget presentation was met with harsh criticism from some council members who were “astounded” by his request for a $3.1 million increase over what the mayor has proposed for the department’s 2022 budget.

Council Member Mitra Jalali scolded the chief for “doing 30 minutes of a speech instead of an actual department presentation.”

“So I want to know what other departments come here and say never mind that whole process but I want more money,” she said, calling Axtell’s remarks “really below the standard of what we’d expect for a budget presentation.”

But Axtell believes his request represents a “modest increase” that would allow the police department to do the bare minimum of maintaining an authorized sworn force of 620 officers throughout the year.

“A few years ago, I stood on the City Council chambers in front of most of you and I said that I needed 50 new officers to keep up with the projected growth and demands, and to continue the progressive work of our police department. Obviously that didn’t happen. In fact, we have less officers today than we did when I made that request,” Axtell said.

The St. Paul Police Department is down to 563 sworn officers right now, according to a slideshow Axtell submitted to the council.

“It’s important to note that we’re losing officers at an alarming rate,” he said, explaining that experienced officers are leaving for jobs in surrounding cities.

Axtell said he’s lost 26 officers to medical leave this year, when “historically that number has been one or two.”

“I’m incredibly concerned about our ability to maintain the momentum without adequate funding. Right now, the women and men who hold this department together are being pushed to the brink, and to put it bluntly, right now we’re getting by on our officers’ sheer resolve, their relentless commitment to victims, and unfortunately a bit of luck. And I worry that our good fortune will eventually run out,” he told the council.

As a result, Axtell has had to make cuts to important units and programs, saying he has “discontinued” the traffic enforcement unit so he has “enough people to respond to 911 calls.”

The training program is “also suffering” because “we no longer have the capacity to take officers off the streets as frequently as we have done in the past,” he said.

At the same time, the city is dealing with a significant increase in crime, resulting in an “incredibly overworked” homicide and robbery unit.

“Their work makes headlines on a regular basis, but let me just take a minute to tell you what the news stories don’t,” said Axtell. “This year each investigator in our homicide and robbery unit is on pace to work 168 cases. In fact, it’s common for them to work cases for literally days at a time and around the clock. This past weekend is a tragic reminder and an example of that work. Four homicides in 36 hours. For a unit that size, it’s unheard of and it’s heartbreaking.”

Mayor Melvin Carter’s proposed budget decreases police funding by about $1.2 million but also calls for shifting some services to other departments. Axtell, however, believes the $3 million increase is needed to bring the department back up to 620 officers.

Jalali didn’t think Axtell’s presentation put the issue in appropriate context. The COVID-19 pandemic and record unemployment levels have contributed to the crime increase, she said, and the police department already receives more money than most departments, even as the city deals with budget cuts across the board.

“I represent a part of town that has a higher crime rate than Ms. Jalali,” Council Member Jane Prince responded. “And in my door-knocking and attending meetings with my constituents, I have not heard anyone say we should cut the number of officers.”