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Before joining friends on a boating trip last summer, Todd Axtell bought a satellite phone he trusted would work while bobbing on Lake Superior. For the last six years, the St. Paul police chief has been accessible around the clock. He even picked up a call on his honeymoon in Las Vegas that cut the trip short.

"That's about as far away from my phone as I ever get," he said in a recent interview, gesturing to his desk a few feet away.

After leading Minnesota's capital city police force through a global pandemic, a stretch of record-breaking gun violence and civil unrest, Axtell is ready to unplug. He retires from the St. Paul Police Department on Wednesday after 33 years with the agency.

Even as many aspects of his profession came under scrutiny, Axtell remained a popular leader in St. Paul. And it wasn't just the crisis calls he took — Axtell was constantly fielding questions and requests at all hours from politicians, business owners, activists, journalists and numerous others.

"He's universally trusted and respected, which is really quite unique," said B Kyle, president and CEO of the St. Paul Area Chamber of Commerce.

"The consistency that we've been seeing over the years built trust among the community," said Wa Houa Vue, former president of the Hmong 18 Council.

"Anytime we wanted a meeting with him, it happened in 24 hours," said Tyrone Terrill, president of the African American Leadership Council. "He's going to be missed."

Early tests

Growing up in a Northfield trailer park, Axtell's hero was his late grandfather, a police officer in Silver Bay, Minn. After high school, Axtell pursued a law enforcement degree and began his career at small-town police departments. He landed his dream job in St. Paul in 1989.

Axtell, 54, rose quickly through the ranks, working stints in all three districts, the gang unit, narcotics and special investigations. Former Mayor Chris Coleman remembers Axtell's parents, Bill and Elaine, beaming as he was sworn in as chief in 2016.

The following day, Axtell's phone rang: A man named Frank Baker had been hospitalized after he was attacked by a St. Paul police dog and kicked by an officer who mistakenly believed he was an armed suspect.

Two weeks later, Philando Castile was shot and killed by an officer in the suburb of Falcon Heights. Although St. Paul officers weren't involved, they were forced to confront hundreds of protesters who spilled onto Interstate 94 and camped outside the governor's residence for weeks.

"There were moments that first summer where I would actually — just because I was exhausted and stressed out — in my mind count the months in a six-year term," Axtell recalled. "Sometimes it felt more like a sentence than a term."

Prioritizing engagement and diversity

As he settled into the role, Axtell quickly began working toward three priorities: engaging the community, diversifying the Police Department to better reflect St. Paul's changing demographics and addressing gun violence.

Right away, he launched a community engagement unit, which oversaw the rollout of new initiatives designed to foster positive relationships between police and the public.

One such program was the Law Enforcement Career Path Academy, which police say was largely responsible for making the department 41% more diverse over six years by removing barriers for low-income recruits.

St. Paul Police Chief Todd Axtell at the police academy graduation ceremony on Feb. 24, 2022 at Harding High School. Fifty-five recruits graduated, with about half coming from underrepresented communities.
St. Paul Police Chief Todd Axtell at the police academy graduation ceremony on Feb. 24, 2022 at Harding High School. Fifty-five recruits graduated, with about half coming from underrepresented communities.

Aaron Lavinsky, Star Tribune file, Star Tribune

Axtell is also credited with outfitting the department with body-worn cameras, creating a mental health unit and renewing focus on officer training and wellness.

"At a time when a really large light and microscope is on police departments across the country … our department has really shined brightly," Mayor Melvin Carter said. "Chief Axtell's leadership has been critical."

Challenges of violent crime

Escalating gun violence in the capital city proved the most vexing problem of his tenure.

Over the past three years, shootings soared — and Axtell found himself scrambling to bolster staffing inside the homicide unit to manage the growing caseload.

In 2020, the city tied its all-time homicide record of 34 deaths, set in 1992. Then, last year, St. Paul recorded 38 deaths. And the bloodshed hasn't slowed; 18 homicides so far in 2022 mean the city is on track for another difficult summer.

The chief has at times clashed with Carter while advocating for more police resources to address violent crime and triage an influx in 911 calls. Carter said those conflicts are natural between a department leader and mayor.

"They've been public because he and I both feel pretty passionately about the things that we are driving forward. And yet, when you cut through all the clutter, we have a Police Department that we both think is serving our city very, very well," the mayor said.

Carter appointed Deputy Chief Jeremy Ellison to serve as interim chief, overseeing the department's $128 million budget and 570 sworn officers while the city searches for a permanent replacement.

Balance of discipline and defense

Axtell has been quick to acknowledge mistakes are made, winning praise for responding to misconduct.

Since taking the helm, Axtell has fired at least seven officers, including five who stood by as an ex-cop assaulted a civilian outside an East Side bar.

He also fired the officer who kicked Baker on his second day as chief. Axtell later testified against him in a federal civil rights trial.

Most recently, he fired the officer who shot and wounded an unarmed and naked man in 2020. Axtell released a snippet of body camera footage to the public within three days, an unusual level of transparency as departments have historically expedited the release of such videos only when it helped justify the use of force.

"I swore an oath to our city, and made a commitment, that I would always do what was right," Axtell said, emphasizing that he judged each case by asking his officers three questions: "Was the action reasonable, necessary and done with respect?"

If they can answer in the affirmative to all three, he vowed to have their back. In many instances, Axtell made good on that promise by vehemently defending those involved in all four fatal police encounters under his watch — situations he described as "tragic, but absolutely justified."

As a result, the St. Paul police union maintained an "amicable relationship" with Axtell throughout his term.

"Regardless of the circumstances, we were always able to work through any differences professionally and move on," federation president Mark Ross said.

'A high standard'

Axtell perused his mail on one of his final days in office. He received a card from a former county employee and one from a resident he'd never met, both thanking him for his service. More gratitude arrived in the form of a cake.

Officer Antwan Denson knocked on the door to bid the chief farewell. Six years earlier, Denson moved to St. Paul from Atlanta "on a leap of faith." He heard Axtell pledge in a speech to build a more diverse, transparent department. That message resonated with Denson, a Black officer who longed for change.

Denson says he made the right decision. Axtell fulfilled his promise to implement critical reforms that enhanced de-escalation training and helped mend community relations.

"I think he upholds a high standard — and it's all in his model of 'trusted service with respect,'" Denson added, referring to the slogan pasted across every St. Paul squad car.

Axtell will return to one of those squad cars during his final shift Wednesday, when he'll respond to emergency calls alongside his son, a St. Paul police sergeant who joined the force eight years ago.

"I always saw him as Superman," said Randy Axtell, 30. "It brings me to tears sometimes of how proud I am of how hard he's worked and his accomplishments."

Todd Axtell is planning to launch a consulting group that will work with public and private organizations on crisis management, security plans, management strategies and more.

He is hoping that job will mean a 40-hour workweek — "a big improvement," Axtell quipped, which would leave him a lot more time to spend with his family, including seven grandchildren.

He plans to stay in St. Paul and is telling well-wishers he'll keep the same phone number. But now, maybe he'll let it go to voice mail sometimes.

"I'm looking forward to seeing how it feels when I wake up not being the chief," he said. "I hope it feels refreshing. And I hope it feels like 'mission accomplished.'"