After several high-profile incidents of black men being killed by law enforcement in recent years, police-reform advocates have been looking to see how Minneapolis and St. Paul would approach public safety going forward. Recent cases of excessive force by local officers (and their dogs), as well as allegations of racism within the departments, have intensified criticism, too.
So, while completing the annual task of presenting their budget proposals in August, the mayors approached the issue carefully, hoping to satisfy both activists seeking reform and residents worried about safety in their neighborhoods.
But now — with council members in each city about to give the final OK to their spending plans — both mayors are looking at budgets that essentially reverse their original proposals for additional spending on law enforcement.
Searching for ‘public safety beyond policing’
The St. Paul City Council is expected to pass a roughly $600 million spending plan, which included a 10.46 percent increase to the city’s levy, or $14.7 million in additional property tax revenue. The proposal also includes plans to promote nine beat cops to higher positions as commanders or investigators, and then fills their current positions with new sworn officers, meaning the St. Paul Police Department will grow from 626 to 635 officers.
The council will finalize the budget with a vote Dec. 12, though Council President Amy Brendmoen said at this point it is unlikely to change.
Meanwhile, Minneapolis city council members have essentially agreed to keep the number of officers on the streets static, axing Frey’s earlier idea. That decision came after police-reform activists filled meeting after meeting calling for alternative investments to prevent violence in the community. On Wednesday, the council approved the city’s $1.55 billion budget.
Though the two departments vary, conversations around public safety in both cities this budget season generally did not. Community members called for more police accountability and new approaches, while city council members say they are prioritizing investments in programs that target the root causes of crime, such as homelessness and substance abuse and mental health, unlike ever before. Minneapolis, for example, is creating an all-new office in the department of health to prevent violence.
“The bigger question our community needs to urgently explore is what it’s going to take to achieve true public safety beyond policing,” said newly-elected St. Paul City Council Member Mitra Jalali Nelson, who represents the city’s Ward 4. “I believe we need to look deeper to understand the types of (911) calls being placed,” and seek to avoid them from happening in the first place.
Carter makes priorities clear
It was midday Wednesday when the St. Paul City Council and Carter announced their final budget proposal, including the changes to police staffing. By the evening, dozens of people, from religious leaders to parents to youth advocates, packed the council’s chambers for its annual “Truth in Taxation Hearing” to tell city leaders they do not want St. Paul’s police force to grow.
“Black lives don’t matter to the police forces here in Minnesota, and until black lives begin to matter to the police force — St. Paul, Minneapolis, and any other police force in Minnesota — I don’t think they should receive additional funding,” said Minister Toya Woodland of Twin Cities Coalition for Justice 4 Jamar.
But Carter had made his position on police staffing clear from the start. In June, responding to a request from Police Chief Todd Axtell to add 50 new police officers over the next two years, Carter said on Facebook: “The philosophy that more police officers, tougher prosecutors, and bigger jails equal a safer city has failed. Our driving goal shouldn’t be to hire as many officers as possible but to reduce the number of times we have to call police in the first place.”
Later, during his budget presentation at Washington Technical Magnet School, he made a point of reiterating his opposition to the proposal, saying the $5 million annual cost would leave little room for other first-time spending.
A compromise in St. Paul
Here’s what is also in the back of officials’ minds: The number of 911 calls for all types of situations is rising across the Twin Cities, causing longer lag times for police officers to respond. In St. Paul, the number of emergency calls has grown by more than a third since 2013.
No one among the some 50 commenters at Wednesday’s hearing in St. Paul complained about response times, though council member Dai Thao told the audience and colleagues that does not reflect what they heard while crafting the budget proposal. “Policing hasn’t always worked for everybody the same way,” he said. “We have folks who have reached out to us … (saying) we aren’t getting enough police, and then we hear your stories tonight that there’s a better way to invest in the community. … There’s that tension.”
In both cities, officials have also been promising to free up officers so they can focus more on building relationships within the community to build trust. “There’s no opportunity for growth because they’re running from call to call,” Brendmoen said in a phone interview Thursday.
She described St. Paul’s plan — which essentially keeps the same number of cops on streets while boosting investigations and management — as a compromise between the mayor, council and police department. Police say they need more resources to keep up with their caseloads, she said, and at one point asked for an increase of 15 new investigators. “Nine felt like a compromise.”
Of the promotions, two are commanding positions in the agency’s sex-crimes unit, while seven are in investigative units that deal with everything from property theft to assault. Three of the nine new beat cops will be “mental health officers,” while another significant chunk of the roughly $900,000 boost for police will go toward pairing mental-health experts with police so they can respond better to people in crisis.
After hearing from the community during the budget cycle, Brendmoen said there is consensus on the council to take new approaches to public safety going forward. “We all agree that law enforcement needs to be more holistic,” she said. “We’re doing great work in many areas as far as policing and modernizing our policing … but we need a plan.”
For the coming year, they focused on finding ways to solve the city’s housing problems, which resulted in a more than $10 million increase in new and existing programs for renters, homeowners and the homeless, she said. Those include efforts to increase density by building new rental units; help emergency shelters; and cutting construction costs on new housing.
Many people applauded the housing initiative, while others praised the budget’s investment in parks and recreation, which will help redesign Rice Recreation Center, among other initiatives. A few people commended the city’s plan to hire a new attorney to exclusively work on immigrant and refugee issues.
According to the city of St. Paul, someone with a median home value of $173,900 (or an estimated $186,200 in 2019) will pay $67 more in city property taxes next year, though totals vary from property to property with additional fees and county taxes. More information on St. Paul’s budget and taxes is on the city’s website.