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‘Our biggest competition is apathy’: a Q&A with St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter

Carter, up for re-election this year, discusses his 2022 budget, policing — and what he wants to do with second term 

St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter: "While many cities are stuck in this community-or-police dichotomy, which I don’t think really helps. We have built a bigger conversation together."
St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter: "While many cities are stuck in this community-or-police dichotomy, which I don’t think really helps. We have built a bigger conversation together."
REUTERS/Eric Miller

After weathering the COVID-19 pandemic and the tumult that followed the death of George Floyd, St. Paul’s 2021 mayoral race has been a relatively quiet one for Mayor Melvin Carter. He faced little in the way of prominent or well-funded competition on his way to claiming the DFL endorsement in his re-election bid, and is expected to have an unexciting election night in November. 

With his 2022 budget, Carter has made plans for the year and beyond, proposing $713 million in spending — an $80 million jump from the budget the City Council eventually adopted for 2021, and $66 million over what the city spent in 2020. Helping him make those plans is an additional $166 million the city will receive over the next several years from the federal government under the American Rescue Plan. 

In this Q&A, Carter responds to some criticism of his budget plan, expands on his plans for the pile of federal cash coming to St. Paul and further explains his thinking around policing and his plans for another term. This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

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MinnPost: In talking with some City Council Members and city leaders in business, there was some that said more of the budget should be going toward infrastructure investments in the city. What’s your plan for that?

Melvin Carter: In my first year as mayor, we literally doubled our annual budget to repave city streets, to do what’s called “mill and overlay” of city streets. We have, I think, doubled, or maybe even tripled our sidewalk maintenance budget and we’ve established our city’s first-ever permanent funding for bikeways across the city. So, [infrastructure] has absolutely been a focus of our administration. 

Our streets have an expected lifespan of about 40 years. I inherited St. Paul streets on about a 239-year replacement cycle. That gives you a sense of the magnitude of the problem we have citywide. We have been bumping that number up but we need a significant infusion in infrastructure. Obviously, this year, the amount we are able to bump that up has been impacted by the pandemic. The pandemic has changed everybody’s plans. 

Also, in my first year as mayor, in my first budget, we put St. Paul on a four-year cycle to rebuild every street downtown. That’s come with a significant amount of dust over the last couple of years. But you can go downtown and see the newer infrastructure: the protected bike lanes, the newer streets. I think that’s important as we think about downtown as a commerce center for our whole city.

That being said, as we think about American Rescue Plan dollars as an infusion to help us get there, I propose focusing ARP Act dollars on, one: public safety through our Community-First public safety lens; two: housing. 

At this time last year, we had over 300 people sheltering in tents and living outdoors in St. Paul. Right now, we got that number under 30 because we had focused so heavily on that area. In many ways, I think we’ve created a case study in St. Paul as to how we’ve approached that challenge. 

As a third piece, which I think of as sort of a works-in-progress. If you remember from history class, the New Deal established a public works administration that was really about employing people. … They built roads and built bridges, they built much of the infrastructure we still use today. So, I think there are some folks who, when I say “jobs,” missed out on the fact that we are going to employ people to actually do something, and we’re going to be filling our potholes and painting our rec centers. The difference is … we’re not going to hire people to paint rec centers, we are going to paint rec centers to hire people. Our driving goal is going to be to invest in the people of our community, and we’re going to invest in our infrastructure through our residents, not the other way around.

MP: Let’s talk ARP Act money, starting with the $40 million for jobs and career readiness. Are there specific infrastructure projects … you are looking to work on with a resident workforce?

MC: We’re in the process of building the specifics of some of these proposals. What I put out is a target, more of a guide rail to let our staff, let our community, our City Council know the magnitude we are looking to invest along each of these areas. Right now our staff across departments are busy taking those high-level guidelines and developing those into much more specific proposals. We will be releasing them over the next couple of months. 

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MP: In your planning for the $40 million neighborhood safety allocation from ARP money, are you leaning toward spending it on traditional policing practices, or more toward alternative public safety programs?

MC: It will be a mix. In St. Paul, we’re doing something different than other places in the country. While many cities are stuck in this community-or-police dichotomy, which I don’t think really helps, we have built a bigger conversation together. 

Our Community-First public safety framework was built by — my guess would be about 2,000 — St. Paul residents who have been a part of this process to build a vision over the past four years. This recently culminated in a 48-member commission that spent the first half of this year going through this deeply to bring us very specific recommendations. 

The framework at a high level really includes four pieces. It includes police officers who have both the capacity and credibility in the community to do their jobs well. It includes what we call “alternative responders,” which acknowledges the fact that over half the time in St. Paul people call 911 it’s not because of a crime, an emergency, or any violence happening; it’s usually someone that’s concerned about something: someone is in crisis, there’s some challenge. When our police officers are on call-to-call-to-call-to-call-to-call all day long, answering these types of community-level concerns that frankly don’t really lend themselves to the traditional law enforcement toolkit to actually solve it in the first place, it’s taking them away from those instances where we do experience crime and violence and emergencies. So our goal is to identify this set of social workers who can show up when someone is in crisis, who can show up when we see someone experiencing homelessness asleep on a bench. 

We can show up when somebody’s in crisis and do two things. One would be: We have this model of emergency response that lifts people up out of crisis, but just to the edge of crisis. Then they fall back and we keep getting stuck in these cycles. The goal is to intervene in a way that interrupts the cycles that end up with us calling 911 over again and free up our officers to concentrate on violent crime and focus on the things that made them want to become police officers in the first place. 

The second of the two components is a targeted investment in neighbors and neighborhoods. There’s a significant amount of research that suggests that people who know where they are going to sleep tonight — who know how they are going to see their children tonight and are connected to the community — are less likely to become, statistically speaking, either an offender or a victim. Helping to invest on an individualized, targeted basis, to help identify individuals who are worried about becoming either an offender or victim, we can intervene to make sure they live with civility within our communities, then we can reduce that likelihood. 

At the same time, there is a good amount of research that suggests that, places that are well-lit, that are well-maintained, that are clean, that have clear sightlines … can actually limit opportunities for crime through high-quality environmental design. If you show me a block, an intersection, a parking lot in our city where we’re concerned that a shooting might happen, I’ll show you a place that we haven’t invested in through that type of logic. 

Traditionally, we have put all of our money just into policing. There’s nobody in any industry that would tell you that it’s a good strategy to put all of your eggs in one basket. We need a portfolio approach to public safety. 

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MP: What are your goals for a second term?

MC: Our biggest goal is to continue to operationalize this community-first public safety framework. That’s the centerpiece for really everything we’re doing. 

I’ll tell you two things I think we’ve learned from our historic approach to public safety. One: it is by far the most expensive thing that we do. And, two: that it has not produced the outcomes that we desire for it to produce. That’s what we acknowledge every time there’s shots fired in our community. That’s what we acknowledge every time there is a crime that we feel like could have been avoided. We’re acknowledging that it’s another reminder that the way we’ve historically done public safety has not produced the outcomes we want. 

The irony of this conversation is, too often, the people who shout loudest that we need better public safety outcomes are doing so en route to trying to prevent us from changing our public safety approaches. We aren’t getting new outcomes but use the same old approaches. That’s what we’re acknowledging. That’s why that has to be the centerpiece. 

Historically, and maybe this is the container that holds it all together, we’re rejecting the traditional approach to city building. The traditional approach to city building centers around two things: a public safety strategy that focuses on identifying bad folks and chasing them out of town or trying to get them in jail or get them out of here. And identifying the potential and promise of out-of-towners and trying to lure those folks and those businesses into town. It [is an approach] that only recognizes problems internally and only recognizes potential externally, and that’s not a way to do city building. 

Our goal is to reverse the polarity of that in a way that says, “We can build a public safety system, but how do we get good people out of the bad situations that find us having emergency after emergency, calling 911 over and over again?” How do we help people in our community make sure that they have some money in their pocket and that they are able to make that money work for them? That’s our approach to city building and it ties and binds everything we are doing, from community-first public safety to guaranteed income to our college savings account initiative that starts every child born in our city with $50 in a college savings account. 

MP: What do you make of how the city has responded to you? It doesn’t appear like there’s much competition in the mayoral race this year.

MC: I think our biggest competition is apathy. Our biggest competition is the despair that has hit people, especially in the context of a pandemic. Our biggest competition is the fact that everybody is in crisis right now. When people are in crisis they act out in desperation. That’s why we have to help one another. My grandfather used to always say, “If experience won’t teach you, nothing will.” My hope is that what our experience over the last 20 months has taught us is what many of us have been shouting for a long time. … The reason it’s not a surprise to me that St. Paul embraces our vision in the way that they do is because it came from them. When I first ran for mayor, through every day of our administration, our goal was to be rooted in public engagement. … When we rewrote our use-of-force policy in my first 100 days as mayor, we did it through a two-way, two-month conversation with St. Paul residents. I don’t know of any other law enforcement agency on the planet that’s engaged residents in a meaningful two-way conversation about what their use of force policy should be. And that was before George Floyd was killed. I say all that to say: I think the high amount of energy and enthusiasm we have for this vision is a reflection of the fact that it’s not really my vision at all. It’s the vision that we’ve gotten from our community members, that we heard from our community members every step along the way.

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MP: In Minneapolis, there’s a discussion — and a vote — about replacing the police department with a Department of Public Safety. What do you think of what’s going on in Minneapolis?

MC: I have to say, I haven’t tracked what’s going on in Minneapolis closely to speak knowledgeably about that. I gotta let the folks in Minneapolis have that conversation for themselves. 

I think one thing that’s special about St. Paul: I think at least the last three times we sought a new police chief in St. Paul we hear from the community, we hear from our NAACP, we hear from our pastors and community groups that they want an internal candidate. It strikes me that there’s probably not that many major cities in America where community members, where leaders in the African-American community would say that when there is the need for a new police chief, that it’s important that the city continue the culture, that it continues these relationships, that it continues the partnerships that we’ve been able to build.

We know that we have to evolve. That’s not an insult. Everything has to evolve. When you stop evolving, you start dying. We know there are still opportunities for us to make progress. We know that there are still opportunities for us to get better at our public safety mission. We’re committed to those things. 

I do think we have a frontline of officers in our city who are committed to our city, who are excellent at de-escalation, who really love this city, and who are really passionate about protecting and serving all of us in our community. We’ve had some really high-profile exceptions to that rule and we’ve had to address those as they’ve come up. But I do think we’ve established a culture of accountability, a culture of transparency … My father is a retired St. Paul police officer, and every time somebody uses the term, “community policing,” he rejects the phrase because his take on that is that its a repetitive statement. If your government is not a community, it’s not policing in the first place. St. Paul is where he learned that.