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St. Paul police chief finalists discuss tackling crime wave and improving community trust at forum

As opposed to Minneapolis, which named three out-of-town finalists and recently picked Brian O’Hara, of Newark, as the city’s new police chief, in St. Paul, four out of five candidates come from within the city’s police department.

Top row, left to right: Jacqueline Bailey-Davis, Pamela Barragan, Kurtis Hallstrom. Bottom row, left to right: Axel Henry, Stacy Murphy.
Photos provided

St. Paul city officials last week announced they have narrowed down their search for a new police chief to five finalists.

During a public forum hosted by Mayor Melvin Carter Tuesday night, the five finalists — Jacqueline Bailey-Davis, Pamela Barragan, Kurtis Hallstrom, Axel Henry and Stacy Murphy — fielded questions from the public ranging from how to tackle violent crime to how to improve trust between community members and police officers. The forum was the first of two to gather public input on the candidates, with the second held Wednesday.

St. Paul’s top cop job is open after former chief Todd Axtell retired earlier this year at the end of his six-year team, in which he led the department through the coronavirus pandemic, record-high yearly homicides are numbers in recent years and civil unrest following the murder of of George Floyd across the river. 

The finalists

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As opposed to Minneapolis, which named three out-of-town finalists and recently picked Brian O’Hara, of Newark, as the city’s new police chief, in St. Paul, four out of five candidates come from within the city’s police department, each with more than 20 years of experience. 

St. Paul’s five finalists are:

  • Assistant Chief Stacy Murphy, who has been with the St. Paul Police Department since 2002 and currently oversees the entire department’s day-to-day operations. 
  • Senior Commander Kurtis Hallstrom, who oversees the Eastern District.
  • Commander Axel Henry, who oversees the narcotics, financial intelligence and human trafficking division.
  • Commander Pamela Barragan, who is the unit commander for community partnerships.
  • Jacqueline Bailey-Davis, who has been with the Philadelphia Police Department since becoming a uniformed officer in 1997. She worked her way through the ranks to become a police staff inspector, conducting audits and inspections of department policies and procedures, among other duties. 

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Violent crime amid demand for reform

All but one of the candidates agreed that gun violence and violent crime are the biggest issues facing the city of St. Paul. 

Addressing crime and instituting reforms are often presented as competing demands, but Henry, of SPPD’s narcotics, financial intelligence and human trafficking division, said both issues are solved by improving the relationship between officers and residents. Letting community members in on how the police do things would help foster credibility and authenticity in that relationship, he said.

“I think the new way that our public is asking us to police our communities is to police it with us,” he said. “It’s that the community are the police and the police are the community.”

“The bottom line is when you talk about community policing, if it’s not authentic, if it’s not intentional, it’s not going to work,” echoed Bailey-Davis, of the Philadelphia Police Department. 

Hallstrom, of the SPPD eastern district, also stressed the importance of officers building a rapport with the community. He said police action should only be taken based on facts and fairness, and that there’s no room for biases. 

Barragan, SPPD’s unit commander for community partnerships, emphasized accountability among officers, and as chief she would be honest with the community when they mess up.

“When we make a mistake, we will own it,” she said. 

SPPD Assistant Chief Murphy said the department’s partnerships with the community have gone to “a whole new level” since George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis. Solutions to increasing violent crime comes from reliance on those partnerships, she said. 

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“Law enforcement doesn’t have all the answers and we never have,” she said. “I think in the past, we’ve relied too heavily on ourselves to come up with those.” 

Addressing mental health needs

Asked how they would address the increasing needs of those experiencing mental health crises, Murphy said the major role of police should be to connect people with resources. 

“A lot of folks may not know where to go, especially if they’re in crisis,” she said. “Our role is to do the best that we can to help de-escalate the situation, in particular if there are mental health issues, but really finding them and putting them in contact with the right resources.”

Bailey-Davis agreed, adding that she would ensure officers receive more mental health first aid training and expand co-responder models. She said she would also put a focus on officers’ mental health. 

Barragan said that through training, she would help empower officers to be more confident when responding to mental health calls.

“It’s not just our responsibility as police officers, we only have a little piece of the puzzle,” she said. “But we are a very influential piece because when somebody is in crisis, we are the ones who are responding.”

Hiring new officers

Police departments nationwide have struggled to recruit more officers in the last two years since Floyd’s murder as many have left the job due to retirements and resignations. While the most recent data reported to the FBI by St. Paul on officer ranks show the capital city’s police staffing issues are not as acute as in some other cities, Minneapolis included, recruitment is expected to be a concern for the next police chief.

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The candidates each listed different characteristics like integrity, empathy and compassion as qualities they look for in new recruits.

Every candidate, however, emphasized a willingness to be part of the community they’re policing. 

“Nobody at the end of the day is going to remember how many people you go to jail. Nobody’s going to remember all the traffic crashes that you responded to,” said Hallstrom. “They’re going to remember how you treated people while you were on the job.”

Both the first and second forum were also livestreamed on the city’s Facebook page.