In the ongoing debate about law enforcement reform and police funding, it makes sense to step back and answer this basic question: Exactly what do citizens need and want sworn police officers to do?
That's the smart strategic mission of St. Paul's recently announced Community-First Public Safety Commission. Last week, Mayor Melvin Carter launched the 40-person commission, which will be co-chaired by Acooa Ellis of Greater Twin Cities United Way and John Marshall of Xcel Energy. The group will meet during the next five months in a process led by the Citizens League and will provide recommendations to Carter and the City Council in May 2021.
The advisory group isn't expected to make recommendations regarding violent crime. Rather, it will concentrate on alternative first-response options to nonemergency matters known as Priority 4 and 5 calls. Those include incidents such as noise issues, barking dogs, shoplifting and parking complaints.
A St. Paul Police Department (SPPD) spokesman told an editorial writer that Police Chief Todd Axtell supports the work of the commission, which will include representatives from law enforcement as well as a diverse cross section of others from the community.
The spokesman described the effort as building upon work already underway in the department, such as receiving more nonemergency complaints online instead of deploying officers.
In a news release, Axtell said one of the department's greatest challenges is the "steady increase in calls for service" and making sure that officers can respond when citizens need them most.
Carter told an editorial writer that there are situations in which there is "absolutely no substitute" for having sworn officers at the scene.
"But two-thirds of our calls could possibly be handled by someone else — a person sleeping on a park bench might need an emergency housing person; someone threatening suicide could benefit from a crisis counselor; a barking dog could be handled by animal control," he said. "Offloading those types of calls could help officers respond more quickly and investigate the crimes where they're really needed."
A summer commentary in the Atlantic magazine (which can be read at tinyurl.com/unbundlepolice) supports the notion of "unbundling" the services that cops provide. It argues that modern police work has become bloated and includes a lot of services that have little to do with violent crime.
Meanwhile, as that longer-term work is underway, St. Paul (like Minneapolis and other cities) is experiencing an increase in violent, gun-related crimes.
Once the lower-priority crimes can be handled in other ways, more of the city's sworn officers can be available on the street to address and hopefully prevent higher-priority crimes.
SPPD has about 800 employees, including 620 sworn officers who respond to nearly 300,000 calls for service and investigate about 13,000 Part 1 priority crimes each year. It's critical for those resources to be used as efficiently as possible. And that's where the work of the city's new commission can make a difference.