Thirty people have been killed by violence this year in St. Paul, as of Tuesday. It’s painful to reduce those lives to statistics, but it must be done for a full understanding of how to respond. The number is a 25-year high in annual homicides for the city, but it may also be an aberration.
A trend regression line drawn for the city over the last 15 years would point downward; one over the last five, upward. The homicide rate can be volatile, up 100% in St. Paul this year, for instance, after a 32.5% decline in 2018. Minneapolis had a similarly dramatic spike in 1995 and 1996, to rates far higher than St. Paul’s is now, followed a few years later by an equally notable decline.
And yet, 30 lost lives. That demands a prompt response emphasizing basic policing — and leads to concerns over Mayor Melvin Carter’s plans to direct resources instead toward a hopeful but intangible vision of “community first” public safety.
The Minneapolis spike in the 1990s was both generically explainable and mysterious in its abruptness. The violence was gang-related, though ferocious even for that field. To the extent a formal response could be credited for the subsequent reduction, it would be CODEFOR, a computer-assisted targeting of police resources that grew out of a philosophy called “Broken Windows,” implemented to acclaim in New York under Mayor Rudy Giuliani during the 1990s. Giuliani’s successor, Michael Bloomberg, extended the concept during the 2000s, when it morphed into a practice called “stop and frisk.” The idea behind all these efforts was to stop problems before they started.
That kind of aggressively preventive policing is now out of vogue, to the extent that Bloomberg felt the need to apologize for it this month as he prepared to enter the Democratic campaign for president. The conclusion now is that the practices poisoned police-community relations and didn’t influence crime rates in ways that broader trends wouldn’t have done anyway. “I got something important wrong,” Bloomberg said on Nov. 17 during an address at a black church. “I got something important really wrong.”
Understandably, Carter wants to avoid doing that in St. Paul.
Instead, his proposal for $1.7 million in supplemental public safety funding in 2020 focuses on root causes of violence, with solutions such as targeting youth unemployment and easing the difficulties that people with criminal histories have when they try to rent housing. These are worthy responses to inequities, and the “holistic” emphasis, as some have described it, may alleviate raw feelings some people have about interactions with authority. But the potential impact on crime rates is as speculative as those of efforts like “Broken Windows” were.
At the same time, Carter would cut the number of St. Paul police officers by five, a difference he says would not “fundamentally transform public safety outcomes in a city of over 300,000 people.” St. Paul Police Chief Todd Axtell disagrees, saying: “It’s simple math: more people living here, more people visiting here, we’re going to have a higher demand for police services.” It would give residents a degree of comfort to know that the mayor and police chief are not too much at odds strategically.
Another thing Axtell and others would like Carter to consider: ShotSpotter, a technology that uses an array of sensors to detect gunfire, helping police to respond more quickly and sometimes more precisely than they can based on 911 calls. Minneapolis has used the system since 2006, one of about 100 cities worldwide that do. The St. Paul Police Department sought nearly $250,000 in the 2020 budget for a pilot program.
Carter declined. He sees the system as a “technological toy.” Indeed, ShotSpotter is imperfect. It gets police to a location but not necessarily to a culprit. It can produce false signals. But a quantifiable system is an accountable one, and the data ShotSpotter provides could be informative for St. Paul. The mayor should keep an open mind.
He also should have sought in his proposed budget to hold the line on officer numbers, if not increase them, while giving the police department the flexibility — within a standard of professionalism — to calibrate between harder and softer styles as situations and trends unfold.
Carter, the son of a now-retired St. Paul police officer, is favoring a transformational style of leadership, which is admirable. But even the most visionary leader cannot neglect the transactional — in Carter’s case, the pragmatic — decisions that would help the city run safely.