A St. Paul police application for federal law enforcement funds has drawn attention for linking violence to "organized crime" and the Green Line as part of a grant pitch backed by a California-based company that sells gunshot detection systems.
St. Paul police say they are seeking the $750,000 Justice Department grant to boost investigations and prosecutions of gun violence through better ballistics evidence and data from gunfire location technology.
But the city's bid has raised concerns from U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum, one of several members of the Minnesota congressional delegation asked to support the grant last month by a lobbyist employed by ShotSpotter, a company that sells gunfire locator and gunshot detections systems nationwide.
McCollum took issue with how St. Paul and the Green Line are characterized in the grant application. In a July 19 e-mail to City Council members, Chief of Staff Bill Harper wrote that the application "paints a picture that our office feels is not reflective of the city and the people of St. Paul. Furthermore, the inaccurate manner in which the Green Line is characterized undermines the necessary work to advance transit funding."
The e-mail compared language in the grant application to how President Donald Trump talks about U.S. cities.
Harper confirmed the origins of the e-mail Thursday and said his comments reflect McCollum's position regarding the application.
Council Member Chris Tolbert said he received Harper's e-mail and that McCollum "makes some important points."
"St. Paul is by and large a very safe city," he said, "but we are facing gun issues like the entire country is."
St. Paul Police Assistant Chief Robert Thomasser said Thursday that he wasn't aware of the lobbying effort, and that the grant would pay for more investigative resources, not ShotSpotter technology.
"What it's meant to do is help us make this a regional response to gun violence," he said.
Thomasser said the department values its relationship with McCollum, whom he described as "a champion for St. Paul."
"We certainly understand why the descriptions in the problem statement in the grant might be alarming to her," Thomasser said. "Hearing about gun violence and gang activity and prostitution can be difficult, and it's not our intention to paint the great city in a negative light."
McCollum was contacted about the grant application last month by Amanda Wood, a Washington, D.C., lobbyist with the firm Becker & Poliakoff, which represents ShotSpotter. Reached by phone, Wood declined to comment.
Included in the materials sent to McCollum and others in the congressional delegation was a sample letter of support addressed to U.S. Attorney General William Barr. Wood also sought the support of Minnesota Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Tina Smith. Spokespersons for both senators said they have not yet written letters to support the grant but are continuing to talk to St. Paul police officials.
"It's Senator Smith's understanding that the mayor's office and the police department are still working some things out," said a spokesman for Smith. "Once that's happened, Senator Smith would consider the request."
The police department requested the federal grant on behalf of the Twin Cities Crime Gun Intelligence Center, which is led by the St. Paul Field Division of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
"The city of St. Paul and key neighborhoods suffer disproportionately from violent crime," the application states. "Gun violence is increasingly being committed across city boundaries due in part to the recently opened Green Line, a light rail system that connects the region's two downtowns, Minneapolis and St. Paul."
Police and city leaders have expressed interest in bringing ShotSpotter to St. Paul, and the grant application says the department will "invest in gun detection software." Minneapolis and cities across the country use the system, which employs acoustic sensors to pinpoint where gunshots originate.
Mayor Melvin Carter met with a representative from ShotSpotter this summer, according to spokeswoman Liz Xiong.
She said the mayor is evaluating the product and looking into how it's used in other cities as he finalizes his 2020 budget proposal.
In an annual report to council members on July 17, Police Chief Todd Axtell said it would cost about $750,000 a year to use ShotSpotter over 9 square miles, but that the city could start with a 3-square-mile area.
"We've actually asked the DOJ to support us in technologies that would help us; also technicians that could help us in our forensics lab and investigative power," Thomasser told council members during the annual report. "The DOJ doesn't want to initially invest in starting the program in the city. We think, though, that if the city were to invest into a starter program, we could find funding partners to then help us possibly expand the area."
Council President Amy Brendmoen said Thursday that there are places in the city where ShotSpotter "would be really helpful."
"When the police came and gave their annual report to us, what I heard them say was that in order for ShotSpotter to be an effective tool, that they needed the investigative work that goes on the back end of it," she said. "I don't think one without the other is particularly meaningful."
Emma Nelson • 612-673-4509