Mass shooting happened as St. Paul council debates police funding

A weekend shooting that killed one person and injured multiple others near downtown St. Paul happened as the City Council debates requests from the mayor and police chief to increase funding for a shrinking police force.

St. Paul is authorized to have 620 police officers but hasn't been at that level since March 2020. Last month, the agency had just 560 sworn staff. Police Chief Todd Axtell said the lack of staffing has pushed his officers "to the brink."

Mayor Melvin Carter has proposed a 2022 budget that he says can return the police department to 620 sworn staff. Axtell has topped Carter's plan with an additional $3.1 million, money he says is necessary to ensure his agency remains at its authorized strength over time.

"When we continue to lose officers and only hire once a year to maybe get to our (620) number for one or two days a year and then continue to lose officers -- knowing it takes 9 months for an officer to be hired all the way through academy and field training until they’re ready for solo patrol -- that’s the cycle that we continue to be in," Axtell said in an interview Monday.

A spokesman for Carter said Axtell never had his proposal vetted by city finance staff before making it to City Council during a presentation on Sept. 1. Council members are due to finalize the budget by December.

Carter was noncommittal when asked Sunday whether St. Paul has enough officers, pointing to other agencies that also have funding needs.

"We have significant investment needs across the city," Carter said. He said St. Paul's current police recruit class is "one of the largest" in city history.

In addition, Carter said the city was spending $1 million on overtime patrols in the West Seventh Street area near where Sunday's shooting happened.

Overtime is a "temporary Band-aid," Axtell said. The department is having trouble getting officers to work overtime shifts because they want to spend time with their families, he said.

Axtell said Monday that if he had 200 more officers on the street this weekend, "that shooting most likely still would've occurred." Instead, he said the city needs more officers so police can restore cuts to community engagement, traffic enforcement and other specialized units.

As of early September, 43 officers had left St. Paul Police, the highest figure dating back to at least 2015, the most recent year in data made public by the police department.

To respond to an increasing number of 911 calls, Axtell said in September that his agency has suspended some community engagement, discontinued its traffic enforcement unit, and reassigned six gang unit members.

Axtell's request to change the police hiring cycle landed in controversy with City Council members. Council Member Mitra Jalali said she was "astounded" when Axtell came before the council on Sept. 1.

"We can't keep doing this, saying 'Thank you police for doing your jobs, here's millions more dollars,'" she said.

But Council Member Jane Prince, echoing the chief's concerns about officer exhaustion, said this weekend that the additional funding is necessary.

"It is high time we listen (to the chief)," she said in a Facebook post.