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St. Paul Police Chief Todd Axtell was driving to work Friday morning when he witnessed an alleged domestic assault and intervened, according to the department.

Axtell, who was in plainclothes and driving an unmarked car, saw a 37-year-old man attacking a 38-year-old woman on the sidewalk about 8:45 a.m., said police spokesman Steve Linders.

"[The man] grabbed her and threw her to the ground and began striking her several times with closed fists," Linders said. "She was on the ground and trying to cover her head with her hands."

The assault occurred on Broadway Street south of Balsam Street, a few blocks from police headquarters.

Axtell pulled over, got out of his car and identified himself as the police chief. "He detained the suspect by pushing him up against the side of [Axtell's] vehicle because the suspect was attempting to flee," Linders said.

The man, who has not been charged, tried to push away from the car and escape, Linders said.

Axtell detained him until two other officers arrived and handcuffed him. It was Axtell's first arrest since becoming chief last June.

Afterward, Axtell said he was glad he was in the right place at the right time.

"This incident isn't really about me. I was just doing what our cops do every day — responding to something that is wrong in order to make it right," he said. "My hope is for the victim to connect with services that will help keep her safe and for the perpetrator to be held accountable for his actions so this doesn't happen again."

Linders said the man and woman lived together in St. Paul.

The accused attacker has a lengthy criminal record that includes convictions for third-degree criminal sexual conduct, theft, domestic assault and failing to register as a predatory offender.

According to court documents, the man has to register as a level two predatory offender until Dec. 2, 2033.

Chao Xiong • 612-270-4708 Twitter: @ChaoStrib