Crime, budget, population numbers suggest public safety needs more attention in St. Paul

A version of this op ed appeared in the Pioneer Press on November 20th, 2019

There is probably agreement across a pretty broad spectrum of political views that one of the core functions of government is the maintenance of law and order. Before government does anything else, it should ensure that people’s lives and property are reasonably safe from criminal harm. A government that doesn’t fulfill this core function is failing.

The performance of St. Paul’s government on this score is decidedly mixed. Recent data from the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting show that reported crime in St. Paul fell by 3 percent between 2017 and 2018. But the killing of a man on Wayzata Street, just east of Rice Street, on Sunday night was the city’s 30th homicide of the year – the most in 25 years. If this continues, the city is on track to surpass the 1992 high of 34.

To deal with this, St. Paul Police Chief Todd Axtell has asked the City Council for more officers and resources for his department. The numbers suggest he has a point. By 2020, St. Paul’s population is projected to grow to 313,000 people, an increase of nearly 30,000 people (10.5 percent) from 2010. But in 2020, the city will employ four fewer police officers than in 2010. City employment rose overall in that time frame, but that was by adding mostly back-office positions such as nine new attorneys (a 15 percent increase according to city figures), 12 human resources staff (a 46 percent increase), and 46 financial services employees (a 119 percent increase), rather than more police officers.

This low staffing might account for low detection rates. If someone attacks you in St. Paul, they have about a 60 percent chance of getting away with it, according to the city’s 2018 Police Crime Report. If someone steals your property, they have about an 85 percent chance of getting away with it. Although major crimes held fairly steady from 2014-2018, arrests dropped by 34 percent. Indeed, to meet the national average of 2.4 sworn officers per 1,000 residents (a statistic taken directly from St. Paul budget documents), the city should add 115 new officers next year.

St. Paul’s Mayor Melvin Carter has a different view. His proposed budget for 2020 would cut five future officer positions. He claims this is necessary in the face of a forecast budget gap of $17 million. Along with a 4.85 percent increase in the city’s general-fund levy, he has also proposed $4 million in spending cuts to various city departments, including the police and fire departments.

He explains that this shortfall is mostly due to salary growth for city workers and public safety staff. Indeed, Mayor Carter is fond of touting the fact that his budget allocates an additional $4.5 million to the police. He is noticeably less fond of explaining that this is mostly allocated to pay increases for current staff, not adding to police numbers.

In real, inflation-adjusted terms, the city’s “Total All Budgets” increased by 11 percent between 2009 and 2019. This is slightly ahead of population growth so per capita spending is fractionally higher. But within that, spending on attorneys is up 24 percent, on financial services, up 67 percent, and up a staggering 118 percent on debt service – a real-terms increase of $80 million. By contrast, the police budget has increased by just 4.7 percent in real terms over that period. If Mayor Carter is looking for economies, he could look elsewhere before economizing on police officers and firefighters.

On top of this, in 2020, St. Paul’s leaders are planning to remove 94 officers from the patrol division and 18 from the major crimes investigations division and transfer them to a new “community engagement” division. To fund this, $2.75 million will be taken out of the “Patrol Operations Division,” and it will eat up the rest of the police budget increase for the year. In 2020, there will be 109 fewer officers in the Patrol division than there were a decade ago. That’s a 23 percent decrease in officers available to respond to calls.

Saint Paul police department staffing 2019

Source: City of St. Paul

Saint Paul police department staffing proposed 2020

Source: City of St. Paul

The FBI’s numbers notwithstanding, a perception across the Twin Cities that there is a worsening problem with violent crime is not unfounded. As well as St. Paul’s homicides, Fox 9 reported recently that aggravated assaults, which involve a weapon causing serious injury, were up 44 percent in the period January to July 2019 from the total for all of 2017 and there has been a nearly 13 percent jump in violent crime in Minneapolis this year.

But the situation in St. Paul is particularly acute, so much so that the federal government is intervening to help. Remember, the maintenance of law and order is one of the core functions of government. Unfortunately, the data reveals St. Paul’s leaders haven’t been making public safety a priority.