St. Paul police chief sends mayor a dire warning about understaffed department

"Right now, we are down nearly 100 officers from our authorized strength of 619 sworn personnel," he said.

St. Paul Police Chief Todd Axtell speaks at an April 2019 event. (City of St. Paul/YouTube)

St. Paul’s chief of police is pleading with city leaders for help once again.

Last Friday Chief Todd Axtell wrote a letter to Mayor Melvin Carter with a dire warning about the understaffed and overworked St. Paul Police Department.

Evidently not much has changed after a contentious Sept. 2021 meeting with the St. Paul City Council, in which Axtell sought a $3.1 million increase over what Mayor Carter initially proposed for the 2022 police budget.

“Right now, we are down nearly 100 officers from our authorized strength of 619 sworn personnel,” he said in his letter. “We’re losing officers to other agencies that offer higher wages and more robust benefits. As a matter of fact … I [just] met with an officer who just left the SPPD for another jurisdiction offering more money. This is something I have not experienced in my 33 years working for the SPPD.”

Axtell spells out the negative effects of a chronically understaffed police department: a diminished “capacity” to connect with the St. Paul community, put time and energy into crime prevention efforts, and “give victims the attention they deserve.”

“Sadly, I don’t see this trend changing any time soon,” he said.

According to Axtell, his officers have been working without a contract for well over a year — more than 400 days — and the current crop of new recruits won’t be ready to “hit the streets” until June.

“My fear is that if we can’t compete with other agencies, we’ll continue to see the unraveling of what is and has been a premier law enforcement destination agency,” he said. “With that in mind, I am respectfully requesting that you help us keep the talent we currently have — the talent in which the city has invested tens of millions of dollars — and ensure that we can recruit the next generation of guardians to our agency.”

Axtell himself is leaving the St. Paul Police Department this summer after deciding not to seek a second term as chief of police. He made the announcement in a Facebook post this past October.

“This is a difficult decision, made after spending the last few months in deep reflection. I trust my instincts. I believe in the women and men of the SPPD. And I know that it’s time to move on to serve my community in another manner,” he said. “One of the lessons my parents taught me was that a life well lived is a life dedicated to something greater than yourself. I still have a lot of years left to dedicate to being in service to others. The deep desire to make a positive difference still courses through my veins.”

St. Paul has struggled with high rates of violent crime, particularly homicides, since 2020. That year the city tied its all-time homicide record, but ignominiously it set a new record in 2021.