It wasn’t a surprise that St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter took advantage of the annual state of the city address — or as he calls it, “the state of our city address” — to highlight the core focus of his administration: reforming the city’s approach to public safety.
From helping former prison inmates to pushing safer street designs, Carter announced a range of new efforts in his address Thursday, a speech that also highlighted what he considers his administration’s success so far.
The ideas add to a growing list of goals from Carter around criminal justice, many of which prioritize investments in schools, parks, libraries and housing over that of policing. But the initiatives also come in the wake of criticism by some community leaders, who say the mayor isn’t moving fast enough to change the city’s approach to public safety. Carter’s director of community-first public safety initiatives — Jason Sole, the former president of Minneapolis NAACP — left the job in January, in part, for that reason.
A new public safety ‘toolbox’
The backdrop of Carter’s “Community-First Public Safety” initiative is this: Though the city’s total number of crimes has remained relatively stagnant over the past five years, some offenses have increased from year-to-year. For example, the number of reports for rapes and motor-vehicle thefts reached five-year highs last year.
In response to the city’s crime levels, leaders of the police department pushed for more police officers during Carter’s first year in office. And though the mayor’s 2019 budget proposal did not boost the number of sworn officers, the City Council — which has the final say on the city’s spending — eventually added nine positions.
Carter made note of the debate in his speech Thursday: “Our traditional public safety toolbox isn’t designed to make us all feel safe, but to draw a circle; and protect those inside from the others, at all costs. That explains why some of us want fewer police officers while others demand more — where you live in relation to that circle defines your reality, and shapes your perspective,” he said. “In a city that works for all of us — where all of us feel safe, welcome and included — that circle cannot exist.”
Among his new ideas is forming a new group to research how people who are leaving incarceration can establish routines and new opportunities in St. Paul. Carter is calling it the “Returning Residents Advisory Council,” and he announced Thursday he will use his first executive order to create it. (St. Paul mayors, unlike in Minneapolis, have the authority to issue executive orders, or city projects directly from the mayor’s office — not the City Council.)
The mayor also wants to partner with the city attorney’s office to create a new Neighborhood Justice Program that incorporates restorative justice — the idea that offenders will be less likely to engage in future criminal activity if they understand the impact of their actions. Carter said the new program will involve volunteers and aim to serve first-time, non-violent offenders as alternative to criminal prosecution.
A focus on streets, housing
Adding complexity to St. Paul’s crime and police issues is its growth. Carter says he wants the city to think differently about how it manages street improvements and development — keeping a special focus on how design influences safety — and will convene a new group of city employees from different departments to tackle the issue. “Research shows that public spaces that are well-designed, well-maintained, and well-lit improve quality of life for residents and limit opportunity for crime,” he said.
Another key to the mayor’s plan to improve public safety, Carter says, is to address the city’s shortage of affordable housing. He said he wants to use a portion of the city’s Affordable Housing Trust Fund to pay for a new program that will help the families of low-income students students maintain stable housing, for example. (Minneapolis is launching a similar program this year, too, dubbed Stable Homes, Stable Schools.)
Carter used the speech to not only introduce new ideas but spotlight existing efforts that he thinks are going well. He touted a first-of-its-kind report, released in February, that shows all incidents in which police officers used force against citizens in 2016 and 2017 — the kind of transparency that will increase the public’s trust in cops and, in turn, prevent crime, he said. He also highlighted the the city’s request for an audit of the police department’s K-9 unit, which it released in January, as a good move.
“People who trust that police will treat them fairly are more likely to obey the law, assist with investigations, and call 911 in an emergency,” Carter said. “In time, the efforts I’ve outlined will make Saint Paul a safer, more inclusive and more welcoming place to live.”