Axel Henry was unanimously approved by the St. Paul City Council in November to be the city’s next police chief after being picked from among five finalists.
Born and raised in St. Paul and a 24-year veteran of the department, Henry had worked his way from night shifts as a patrol officer to overseeing the department’s narcotics, financial intelligence and human trafficking divisions.
Now, he steps into the job as police departments locally and around the country face heightened scrutiny, and recruitment and retention challenges. Officers left the profession in droves after the murder of George Floyd by a then-police officer in nextdoor Minneapolis, and the staffing shortages put added pressure on departments dealing with increases in crime in recent years.
Henry sat down with MinnPost in his office for this interview, which has been edited for length and clarity.
MP: How do you think St. Paul residents benefit from having a police chief who is a native St. Paulite?
AH: I certainly wouldn’t want to say that you have to live here or be from here to be successful or to be a good police officer, but I also think there’s an importance that comes from growing up in a community that has always been a little bit different. The city helped raise me in the sense that there are very unique neighborhoods. St. Paul is like a big small town. Having grown up and been exposed to just how diverse the city is and how unique it is and the way it approaches things, gives you optimism towards what we have achieved and what we could achieve in the future.
I also know from speaking with community members and groups that a lot of times when people are at their most frustrated, they sometimes feel like you don’t really understand unless you live in the neighborhood yourself. For many people, that’s a really good building block because they realize I’m not just being asked to deal with some of the problems that police are asked to deal with, but I’m coming at these problems as a resident. I’m also a person that was raised here and lives here and that these problems aren’t just problems I deal with for the eight or 12 or 15 hours a day that I’m working, they’re actually the problems that I deal with because it’s my home.
MP: Are there any changes or reforms that you plan to institute either short-term or long?
AH: Reform is an interesting word. I think in some parts of the country, people hear that and they think that means something negative. I think reform is a flag that we should fly over the department 24/7, 365. I think we are always looking at what we can do, what we can do better. We’re also always looking in the rearview mirror, so we’re always asking ourselves: If it sounded great on paper, we’ve now applied it, how is it working out? So it isn’t only that we’re constantly looking for the best approaches here in St. Paul, and we’re not only looking for partnerships with the community – because it’s not the police and the community, it’s the community, we’re a part of that – but then we’re constantly looking at it afterwards and during to make sure that if a great idea sounds great on paper, but then it gets applied and backfires or maybe has unintended consequences, we are constantly looking at that.
MP: Are there specific things that you’re looking to change as you get started in your first term?
AH: We’re a very healthy department and we’re in very good shape in a lot of ways, but I want to bring more clarity. How officers can get the experience and training to become a sergeant, how sergeants can be more prepared to become commanders, and so on. Internally there, that’s a part of the process that hasn’t always been as clear. We want to make sure that we’re having the very best trained officers we have.
One of the narratives you hear all over the country, and for very good reason, is that as much as some communities want to defund their police departments, almost every community is saying our police officers need better and more training so that’s something that we’re looking to always build on and enhance. We know that when you look at incidents around the country where there’s been great tragedies and failures, much of that points back to a failure to train and a philosophy about how they do police work.
We’re all dealing with staffing issues so we have to figure out how we can do it smarter and more efficiently, and we’re really engaging our workforce as a whole to come and tell us and be a part of that solution.
MP: Police departments, including St. Paul’s, have dealt with staffing challenges recently that have coincided with increases in crime. How big of a focus is there on getting those numbers up, and what are some things that you are doing in that regard?
AH: That’s a huge focus. We’re talking about a number of things: We’re talking about recruitment, we’re talking about retention and we’re talking about development. One of the things you don’t hear a lot in the media stories is that it’s a national issue, so there’s a recruitment issue happening right now. Well, there’s also a major retention issue because if there aren’t candidates coming in the front door, the only place you’re gonna get them is from other law enforcement agencies. One of the first things I’ll hear as a chief when I walk into a room where other chiefs are is they’ll say, “Let’s make an agreement that we won’t poach our people,” but that’s happening.
The other thing is we need to develop our workforce. Solutions we use for other things like community safety happen when the community as a whole, not just the police department, goes out and celebrates the police department and actually asks for people to join us. One of the things we’re working on is a recruiting video where you’re not just hearing from the chief of police about why we want you to join our department, but we’re asking our community members who know this is vitally important to say “We want them to join” because it’s a different message when you hear it from a pastor or a community activist or or an advocate from the domestic violence.
Internally, we’ve developed a brand new position focused on that because we know that it isn’t just enough to be a great police department or to have a great reputation. We’ve got to meet people where they’re at, we’ve got to find new and innovative ways to bring people on board and we’ve got to streamline things. We have great candidates out there that want to come here and don’t know what they have to do in the next three steps to get licensed so they could be a police officer in the state of Minnesota. We have candidates out there that work for other departments that want to change but don’t know how. Like I said, we have a dedicated sergeant who’s assigned to recruiting specifically and we have a team of about 45 officers that just went through training to do it, but really, recruiting is everyone’s responsibility.
MP: How much of that effort is trying to diversify the police force?
AH: That’s a major thing for all departments and it’s something that we’ve developed very specific programs for. Our current academy, I think, is 67% underrepresented groups. One of the best things we get to do here is because we’re big enough, we have onboarding programs where we’re taking people right from our community that we want to join here. We work with a mayor (St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter) who’s prime priorities right now is to have a workforce that’s from St. Paul, lives in St. Paul, and works in St. Paul. They don’t all need to be police officers but we’re a very big part of his plan and we support that 100%. It’s very nice to work in an environment where not only is the chief of police saying it but the mayor is echoing that same thing.
MP: More than two and a half years ago, George Floyd was murdered by a then-Minneapolis Police Officer across the river. How has his murder, as well as its fallout, informed how you plan to lead this department?
AH: You can’t be a human being without having a response to that, and certainly my response doesn’t happen simply because I’m a police officer but because I’m a resident and because I’m a person. That resonated around the globe and for good reason.
The issue that happened around George Floyd’s murder tore down some things that needed to be torn down, and not the least of which was what you were hearing from law enforcement leadership all over the country prior to that. It was almost impossible to fire an employee, and employees that were fired never stayed fired. In six months post-George Floyd, we saw people getting fired all over the country and we’ve just seen in this awful event that happened in Memphis, how that has redefined how we approach those things. As much as it was a tragedy that we all wish never happened, there has been good that has come out of that and I’m inspired by that good part, and I’m utterly committed to making sure that we never have an event like that.
The chief in Memphis (following the killing of Tyre Nichols after he was beaten by police) did a very good job of simplifying it down. She talked about the lack of humanity in that incident. That’s why in St. Paul, we have humanity baked into everything we do. It’s a part of the DNA here. If humanity is a part of the question and a part of the solution, then I think you’re much less likely to have incidents where people are treated humanely.
MP: What do you think the chief’s role is on the community level?
AH: I really believe that the chief has to be equally as comfortable in the council chambers as on the street corner: Where we’re having some of the most important conversations and hearing the most important information is at the grassroots level. The chief isn’t just the organizer or manager of the biggest division in the city – which they are – they also have to be very plugged into what’s happening out in our community so that we know for ourselves firsthand, we have a real understanding of what our community needs, but also that our community understands that we are as sincere and as authentic as we want them to know that we are. It’s very important that we’re constantly having those interactions.
Of all the leaders we have in our community the chief is just one, but the chief has contact with a lot of them so they can say this group needs this thing, this group has this thing. Instead of them giving it to us, we can say give it to them. We can start to build these bridges of resources, information, communication, relationships, and I think that really is probably the biggest, most important piece to that role for the chief and the community: to be a great connector, a great organizer, a great cheerleader and a great supporter of all the other work because neighborhoods aren’t really safe just through police interactions. We contribute to that, but neighborhoods become safe because people have safe places to live.
Police are a part of that community safety and that comes through community approaches where we work together.