Minneapolis, St. Paul end tumultuous 2021 by increasing police spending

After a nationwide debate about defunding the police, the Minneapolis and St. Paul city councils ended 2021 by doing the opposite – funding police.

A tumultuous year in both cities -- one that saw Minneapolis voters defeat a proposal that would've replaced the Police Department with a safety agency tasked with taking a public health approach to crime -- ended with budget votes that received little fanfare this week. Minneapolis City Council mostly went along with Mayor Jacob Frey's $192 million police budget, while St. Paul City Council added a modest amount to Mayor Melvin Carter's initial proposal. Both reflect increases from the prior year.

The Minneapolis budget reflects a "sustained commitment to public safety," Frey's spokeswoman said Friday. Frey said it will fund five police recruit classes, starting a long rebuilding process after the city lost nearly 300 officers over the past two years.

Supporters of the November ballot proposal, which failed 56 percent to 44 percent, did not hide their disappointment. Among them were council members leaving City Council this month without realizing the changes they've long sought.

"It seems this budget is intended to send a heartbreaking political message that nothing has changed in Minneapolis since the murder of George Floyd," said Council President Lisa Bender, who did not seek re-election.

Police spending was by far the most controversial part of the overall $1.6 billion budget. It passed, 9-4, with Bender joining Cam Gordon, Phillipe Cunningham and Jeremiah Ellison in opposition. All are departing the council except for Ellison, who called the budget "a moral failing."

In St. Paul, City Council members voted unanimously on a $660 million city budget after adding $1 million to Carter's police spending plan. The additional money will fund a second police academy in 2022 to get the St. Paul Police Department closer to its authorized sworn strength of 619.

Yet the funding is less than what Police Chief Todd Axtell has said is needed to ensure his agency is consistently at full strength. Currently, the agency has 553 sworn staff, nearly 70 below the authorized level. St. Paul requires its police department to have attrition before it can hire new officers. 

Council Member Jane Prince said she remained concerned about staffing in 2022. 

"I need to hear a commitment from the administration that it's committed to two academies so we don't get in this bind again," Prince said Wednesday.

The additional $1 million will go into a holding account. Before the police can spend it, City Council and the mayor must approve.

"I can understand concerns, but I really do think this is a good way to create accountability," Council President Amy Brendmoen said.