St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter is doubling down on efforts to reimagine the city's emergency response system with a new grant program and other initiatives funded by the federal American Rescue Plan.
Flanked by Democratic U.S. Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Tina Smith outside the Frogtown Community Center on Friday morning, Carter announced that the city would direct $4 million of its federal pandemic aid to a soon-to-form city board that will distribute grants to grassroots organizations working to prevent violence.
City officials also highlighted additional safety-focused plans to use American Rescue Plan dollars: $1.5 million for St. Paul Public Libraries to improve its services and safety protocols; $1.5 million for expanded youth programming at St. Paul parks and recreation centers; $2 million to help hire police officers; and $1 million for traffic safety efforts.
"For decades, we have mistaken emergency response as an entire, complete public safety system," Carter said. "We know that a complex, comprehensive public safety strategy also requires coordinated and proactive investments and interventions to reduce the likelihood that something dangerous happens in the first place."
Since becoming mayor in 2018, Carter has made similar speeches advocating for what he calls a "community first" approach to public safety, encouraging the dedication of more city time and resources to address the root causes of crime.
Early in his first term, Carter pitched and budgeted for a suite of programs aimed at curbing gun violence. But the pandemic stalled some of those efforts, simultaneously fueling an increase in violent crime in St. Paul and many other U.S. cities.
Interim Police Chief Jeremy Ellison said reducing gun violence is the department's top priority, as trends of the last few years have continued into 2022. A record 38 homicides happened in St. Paul last year, and this year the city has already recorded 22.
As of July 7, St. Paul police received 1,241 reports of shots fired in 2022, and gunfire struck 136 people since the start of the year. According to the department, those figures are up from the city's counts at the same time last year — 1,186 reports of shots fired and 108 people struck.
The grim figures have not altered Carter's vision — on the contrary, he says the pandemic has exacerbated the need for investments in communities. At the beginning of the year, St. Paul launched its Office of Neighborhood Safety, which is overseeing the city's violence prevention work.
Brooke Blakey, the office's director, said Friday that her focus at the moment is connecting individuals involved in gun violence with resources, programs and services, many of which may already be offered by existing community organizations. The city is branding this effort Project PEACE.
"We're working collaboratively to develop an individualized approach for each person," Blakey said, adding that assistance could range from gas station gift cards to mental health treatment.
Blakey will facilitate the 15-member Neighborhood Safety Community Council, the new city board that will advise officials on public safety strategies and review grant requests. St. Paul residents can apply to join the board on the city's website.
St. Paul is among a small group of cities participating in the White House Community Violence Intervention Collaborative, an 18-month initiative announced last summer to help communities struggling with gun violence work together to identify solutions.
In the past, Carter has called for stricter state and federal gun measures, blaming partisan gridlock for a lack of action to address shootings. The mayor traveled to Washington, D.C., earlier this week to celebrate the passing of the federal law that toughens some requirements for gun buyers and helps local authorities temporarily take weapons from people judged to be dangerous.
"So much of this is a coordinated approach," Klobuchar said Friday. "St. Paul gets it."
Smith added that gun violence disproportionately affects communities of color and low-income neighborhoods.
"This project springs from the core value that everyone deserves to feel safe in their homes and their communities," she said.