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St. Paul now looking into alternatives to armed police on certain 911 calls

The commission will explore alternative ways to respond to non-violent situations

St. Paul is creating a new public safety commission to explore alternative ways to respond to emergency calls without the presence of armed police officers, Mayor Melvin Carter announced Tuesday. 

The commission, consisting of about 40 people, includes co-chairs Acooa Ellis, Greater Twin Cities United Way senior vice president of community impact, and John Marshall, director of community relations for Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota for Xcel Energy.

It comes amid similar efforts being considered in Minneapolis, with several city councilors this week proposing a program to send mental health professionals to 911 calls for unarmed, non-violent people suffering mental health crises, rather than armed officers. 

After studying non-police responses to emergency calls and the possibility of a city office to coordinate public safety work, the commission is due to provide recommendations to St. Paul City Council in May. 

The nonpartisan public policy organization Citizens League, which as previously aided with policy recommendations regarding how to best begin the approved minimum wage increase, will lead the process. 

The rest of the commission will be comprised of people from a range of backgrounds, including youth, professionals in education and business, cultural groups, law enforcement and faith communities, Carter said. The full list will be announced later this month. 

“Now more than ever, amid the many crises we face, re-envisioning emergency response is a critical step toward realizing safer outcomes,” Carter said in a Tuesday statement. “This commission will help us expand our Community-First Public Safety Framework, and further chart a path forward for our community.”

Carter first alluded to the commission in August, when he said he wants to see a 2022 budget plan that includes a way to have social workers, mental health professionals and housing counselors help with cases that would traditionally fall under law enforcement, freeing up officers to focus on violent crime, he said. 

“Today, one of the most pressing issues we face is a steady increase in calls for service,” Police Chief Todd Axtell said in a statement.

“We have an obligation to make sure officers are available when people need them — especially for the most serious crimes. And while we’ve taken steps to address the issue by adjusting deployment, leveraging technology and targeting resources, we should never stop pushing to do more for our city. My hope is that this commission builds on our work and helps us identify even more efficiencies.”

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