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Mayor, police chief differ on how to address gun violence in St. Paul

Mayor Melvin Carter proposed an extra $1.7 million investment in public safety amid rising violence.
Todd Axtell and Melvin Carter

The rise in gun crime in St. Paul seen this year has exposed a gulf between the city's mayor and its police chief on how best to handle the violence.

There have been 30 homicides recorded in St. Paul in 2019, the highest level seen in the past 25 years, and it's prompted Mayor Melvin Carter to describe it as a "public health crisis."

But there remain significant differences of opinion between Carter and St. Paul police chief Todd Axtell on how to tackle the growing problem.

The pair have previously clashed over the mayor's budget proposal that included reducing the city's police force by five officers, a move that Axtell – who has asked the city for significantly more officers – says could cut 911 response times.

On Wednesday, Mayor Carter revealed an additional budget proposal that would add an extra $1.7 million to public safety budgets in 2020.

However, this figure does not include money for extra officers, or even the reinstatement of the 5 planned cuts, nor does it include the $250,000 requested by Chief Axtell for "ShotSpotter" technology to alert police to gunshots, which the Pioneer Press revealed this week Axtell had asked for.

In a presentation Wednesday, Mayor Carter claims that St. Paul PD said it wasn't interested in ShotSpotter tech two years ago, and while the city had looked into the possibility of acquiring the system, its research found it arguably wouldn't result in a reduction in crime befitting such an investment.

"In similar fashion ... I cannot pretend that a difference of 5 police officers can fundamentally transform public safety outcomes in a city of over 300,000 people," Carter added.

Instead, Mayor Carter's funding boost would be used for "community-first" programs aimed at reducing crime, and increasing the physical, emotional and financial security of city residents while ensuring they have access to community support so they're less likely to get involved in crime.

These programs will include investing in youth jobs through the city's Right Track Program, continuing to fund free after-school programs at recreation centers, and expanding its Community Ambassadors Program, which Carter says has reduced youth arrests by more than a third in several city neighborhoods.

Some of the money will also go towards public realm improvements, ensuring problem areas of the city are well-lit by upgrading street lights and trimming trees, as well as improvements in pedestrian safety.

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The city will also take efforts to encourage property owners to rent to residents with criminal histories, providing "mitigation funds" for those who choose to do so.

"We need a fundamentally new approach," Carter said. "Even with a strong police department that leads locally and nationally on so many fronts, we cannot expect our officers alone to solve all of our problems.

"It starts in the home and with the parents- we have to do a better job raising and investing in our youth to grow to be hopeful, productive members of our community."

Per the Star Tribune, Chief Axtell will have a say on the final proposal put forward by Carter to the city council, though he wasn't at Wednesday's presentation.

"I appreciate Mayor Carter taking a long-term approach to addressing the root causes of gun violence in our city, and I look forward to reviewing the details of the plan once I receive a copy," he told the newspaper.

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