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Top Priority: Public Safety [Detailed]

My platform is to REFORM the Saint Paul Police Department (SPPD), which includes  supporting community-based alternatives, funding the police, police accountability, and improving relations between citizens and SPPD. I believe all citizens, workers, including law enforcement, deserve dignity and mutual respect. In the section, I will do a compare/contrast and question format.

Platform Overview:

Carter’s Approach: Mayor Carter has been funding policing alternatives, by underfunding (or “defunding”) the SPPD, which leads to under-resourced and under-staffed police departments as demonstrated by excess overtime for officers, and longer response times that disproportionately harm disenfranchised citizens. On September 1st, 2021, SPPD Chief Todd Axtell gave a budget presentation to the city council requesting more funds because a $3.7 million attrition led to staffing shortages. Mayor Carter is committed to spend  $40 million of federal money for the new Office of Neighborhood Safety, which has no concrete plans on how to address their goals of replacing officers with social workers (or equivalent). Finally, Carter is not taking active steps in improving the relationship between citizens and the SPPD making the city susceptible to another civil unrest, and having challenges to get citizens to join the SPPD.

Abu’s Approach: My public safety approach takes a “Yes, and” approach where policing alternatives and the SPPD is funded, but more importantly it is a collaborative relationship, not antagonistic. I provide a solid proposal on how non-officers can address low-priority calls by having citizens choose the appropriate staff to assist them. In addition, I will be implementing a policy where patrol officers get 30% paid time engaging the community within their district. Furthermore, I will increase funding of the Civilian Review Board and enact police liability insurance for the SPPD, which will remove taxpayers liability of lawsuits, remove highly liable officers, and can serve as an external mechanism to assure police department is adequately staffed.

Priority #1 Policing Alternatives

Part of the “Yes And..” approach is building on top of the existing work that Mayor Carter is doing. There is no point in spending tax dollars on another commission of sorts. 

Mayor Carter’s Community-First Safety Vision

Mayor Carter’s approach to public safety is crime prevention by targeting root causes such as poverty, homelessness and unemployment. He has funded his programs by defunding the SPPD. During 2019, there were record level homicides, Mayor Carter decided to spend $2 million in “community-first” public safety programs instead providing additional funding to SPPD. In 2020, when the city was experiencing record violence, these programs were “slow to roll out” according to the mayor. Personally, I was an active organizer, knocking on doors in the Frogtown area at the time (unprecedented number of shootings), and was frustrated how the administration didn’t do anything to support family victims of crime and address the crime.

In January 2021, Mayor Carter convened a 48 member Community-First Public Safety Commission. The Commission findings will be funded from the $166 million of federal money from the American Rescue Plan. The Commission priorities were explicitly to 

  1. Create a new city-staff office to drive and integrate community-first public safety initiatives and strategies i.e. Office of Neighborhood Safety 
    • The office is independent from the Saint Paul Police Department (i.e. no coordination). This office will be similar to Minneapolis’ Office of Violence Prevention (how creative, *sarcasm*) 
  2. Non-Police staff alternatives for priority 4 and priority 5 calls; so SPPD can handle higher priority calls
    • The commissioners are adamant in not involving the police, but provide no logistical plan how any of this is going to be carried out. 

 

My criticism of the Community-First Public Safety Commission. 

From reading the Saint Paul Community-First Public Safety Commission report, I believe the commissioners are coming in with good intentions and some of the recommendations are right-on and would like to implement them for my administration, such as having non-police staff to respond to certain low-priority calls, and getting citizens impacted from violence involved. However, I believe there is some misalignment with the goals and the execution process is unclear, which would lead to inefficiency, mismanagement, and potentially harm to all the parties involved. My criticisms are the following:

  1. Why are we creating two separate departments to address violence, while explicitly trying to exclude participation of the Saint Paul Police Department? The departments should collaborate with another as some calls may require partnership. Also there is a lot reinventing the wheel, when Ramsey county has resources already
  2. There is no clear direction/plan on how non-police staff will be sent out to fill low-priority calls and the commitment of putting non-police staff for ambiguous calls can be dangerous to both the staff and the respondent. During my ride-along with SPPD, I experienced a welfare check that turned into a domestic incident, which required immediate action to protect the victim from an ‘alleged’ victim. In addition, I attended a public meeting for the Commission, and, during the meeting, the program manager of Community Ambassador Program, made it clear that he would not send any ambassadors for those calls, because he is aware that they can escalate.
  3. When the federal money runs out in two year and/or the office is successfully launched, Mayer Carter and, the respective city council, will further cut the police department and officers morale and mental health will be shaken as they will be dealing with only high priority calls increasing the likelihood of an  police-involved incident.

 

My solution/plan for the Community-First Public Safety Commission. 

Objective: Non-Police staff alternatives for priority 4 and priority 5 calls

Background/Process: A person calls 911 and talks to the operator. The operator categorizes the priority of call (1-5), and the officers pick it up based on the queuing system. 

The two driving questions for my solution is the following:

  • Whose safety is prioritized first? The staff or the citizens.
    • The commission prioritize citizens safety first.  If the non-police staff is in an escalated situation, then their life and other parties can be in danger. They may need to call officers for backup
    • My priority is the staff safety. If the risk level is unknown then an officer should be sent. The officer is already trained for this situation, and less likely to require backup
  • Who makes the risk assessment? The staff or the citizens
    • The commission recommends staff make assessments. The staff needs to evaluate the situation. If it’s an escalated situation, then their life and other parties can be in danger. They may need to call officers for backup
    • My recommendation is the citizen makes the assessment if a non-officer staff is deployed. The citizen either calls the non-police line and/or the dispatcher confirms with the caller if a non-officer should be deployed

 

From the flow dispatch diagram, if the caller wants a non-officer to come they can either call the non-emergency number 311 (any equivalent) or call 911 and the dispatcher will ask the caller if police should come. A co-responder option may be more appropriate for some cases. This process assures the right staff is sent because the caller has best knowledge of risk assessment. For the non-police staff aiding citizens, they can be community members and/or specialized staff. We can specify non-police staff to respective neighborhoods and/or districts so stronger community bonds can be built.  In regards to funding, it will cost a lot less because a model is established and less training of non-police staff is needed.

 

Priority #2 Funding the Police

Why should we fund the SPPD?

The SPPD is severely underfunded. An under-staffed and overworked department can lead to burn-out and lead to more mistakes, which can have severe consequences on the city. Officer morale and public support influence if officers will join the department. Due to limited staffing, the SPPD has disbanded several specialty units, and currently, the gang-gun unit is half of it’s capacity. The lower quality service impacts the safety needs of the most marginalized citizens. Finally, it can make fiscal sense; the understaffing leads to officers taking overtime, and the overtime compensation could have been used to hire more personnel.

How is the SPPD underfunded?  

In mid 2019, Commander Jack Serier completed a comprehensive internal organizing staff study of the SPPD. The study recommended some internal restructuring of the police department, and increasing 103 full-time equivalent positions for proper staffing for current needs; these include officers, investigators, and support staff. The study was based on data from 2013 to 2018. During the pandemic, and after civil unrest, violent crime such as shootings, and homicides reach record numbers, disproportionately harming poor communities. This places even more stress on front-line officers and investigators [See crime statistics below]

In response, Mayor Carter, and along with some city council members are firmly committed to defund the police. The police budget has decreased every year, despite spikes of violence. On September 1st, 2021, SPPD Chief Todd Axtell gave a budget presentation to the city council requesting more funds because a $3.7 million attrition led to staffing shortages. The total number of sworn officers went from 635 in 2019 to 620 in 2021, where the current headcount is at 563. In addition, there are 50% less applicants applying for the academy, so the police chief is having trouble filling in retired officer roles.

If re-elected, Mayor Carter will sharply cut more SPPD funding with the establishment of the city department, Office of Neighborhood Safety. He will be using  $40 million of federal money of one-time funding from the American Rescue Plan to establish it.  IF the department is successful at its goals of replacing handling of priority 4 and 5 calls with non-officers, then it will free up police officers to take the high priority calls. This will lead to further decrease the number of total officers, and the remaining officers will be handling the most dangerous calls on a frequent basis. This will take a severe mental health toll on officers, and there will be even further under-staffing i.e. who wants to be an officer in Saint Paul. Regardless of the success of the program, after the federal money runs out, the administration will continue to funnel money into it at the expense of the police department.

What is my funding/staffing priorities plan?

I believe that officers should not be overstressed, and have time to engage the community as part of their job 

  • Patrol officers should have 30% uncommitted time to engage in community activities. Reap the benefits
  • Seek out IT software solutions to address investigator challenges with conducting and filing reports
  • Other staffing needs will be consulted with the police chief and/or outside consultant

 

Priority #3 Police Accountability & Relationship Building

In American society, people’s trust in law enforcement has been tarnished by either direct negative personal experience with law enforcement, high profile incidents highlighting police brutality, and the lack of accountability of officers.  For wary citizens to gain trust of their police department, they need to know there is external accountability for police actions AND they need to build a relationship with officers.  The questions that I seek to answer is 

1) How do we minimize negative citizen encounters with law enforcement?

For victims of policing, trauma is real.  For some urban citizens, they only encounter police on the receiving where they could be Some people have been unjustly treated and/or profiled by the police. Personally, I grew up in NYC as a teenager in post 9/11 and first hand experience of stop & frisk policies targeting of Muslims stop & frisk policies and was extremely unnerved just being around officers for many years. I needed to overcome my trauma [read my trauma story here]. Anyways, we should strive current citizens heal from their trauma (requires individual initiative) and reduce to likelihood future trauma events

#Factor 1: Police Culture and Policy

  1. Redundancy checks on Information Gathering: Arresting the wrong person and/or entering the wrong house can have traumatic effects for all parties involved and will cost the city tax-dollars for damages 
  2. Blurry Line of Proactive Policing: Challenge certain proactive policing strategies such as there should be probable cause for citizens being pulled over, detained, and/or get their vehicle searched. The proactive strategy, Stop & Frisk, was struck down by the New York state supreme court because the application of stopping citizens without probable cause was targeting the majority of people of color.
  3. Adequately resourced/funded police department: If officers/ investigators are under-staffed and under-resource, then it increases the likelihood of an error and/or aggressive action leading to traumatic inducing incidents, which will lead to civil suits costing tax dollars.

  #Factor 2: Citizen and Police Relationship 

For building relationships between citizens and officers. Patrol officers should be given paid time (30%) to engage the community in the district they serve. The type of engagement can vary by officer; i.e coach, mentorship, volunteer, etc. This can be an excellent opportunity for the SPPD to partner with local organizations. Currently the SPPD has an athletic league where officers can spend time with youth. Unfortunately, another lost opportunity for officers to build relationship with youth is the School Resource Officer (SRO), whom were eliminated during the aftermath of the George Floyd’s murder. Prior to the incident, the Minnesota Survey has shown that over 95% of St. Paul students were favorable to have a police officer present. SRO could be revisited with discussion on community safety. 

It is important for citizens to recognize that officers are human, and for some citizens to express open animosity toward officers can impact their performance and relationship with others. Yes officers are public servants and professional, but would you think it would be okay to berate other service employees? The citizen-officer relationship impacts the likelihood of youth wanting to become a law professional themselves. This is particularly challenging for people of color, where there is stigma within their community in becoming an officer. If we want to hire local racially diverse officers then citizens, and officers alike, need to treat each other with dignity, and my policy giving paid time for patrol officers to engage citizens in the community will help build those relationships.  Finally, I encourage citizens to take advantage of the Ride-Along program

2) How do we assure police accountability and build citizen trust of the system?

Some citizens, fundamentally, distrust the police because they are in a position of power, and have abused their authority in the past. Prior to bodycams, surveillance footage, and cellphone footage, police officers got the benefit of the doubt of what occurred during an incident, and sometimes even planting fake evidence. The introduction of wide-use of bodycams for all calls has greatly improved accountability in what really happened and curbs officers abuse of power because know they are being recorded. In addition, bodycams can protect the officer from frivolous citizen complaints as well. For criminal investigations and police-involved incident, the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA) is involved as independent investigators. Currently, the BCA will be drafting a bill to also include bodycams for their crime scene investigators. 

Even with all these measures taken, officers may violate department policies such as use-of force. The citizen complaint process against an officer passes through three agencies, which are the SPPD Internal Affairs (two layers), the city’s Human Rights & Equal Economic Opportunity (HREEO), and the Police Citizen Review Board (PCIARC). From this process, the SPPD police chief, Todd Axtell, determines the appropriate disciplinary measure. The disciplined officer can repeal the disciplinary action, but the city, i.e. taxpayers, will be paying the attorney fees to defend the ruling. 

3) How can the Police Citizen Review Board improve the transparency of the Police Department? 

The Citizen Review board members consist of Saint Paul citizens who are independent from the police department. The board receives ALL the same documents, and video evidence given to the Internal Affairs, including those provided by the BCA. In addition, the board has the power to subpoena to get additional interviews/investigations if warranted. In practice, the civilian review board provides additional perspectives on the officer’s behavior and the underlying policing policy. The board can then make a disciplinary recommendation to the police chief, in which he can accept and/or decline. 

Currently, there are only 5 out of 9 commissioners seated. The process to get on the board involves several steps including going through an interview screening process, extensive background check, and going through the Civilian Police Academy. The board members receive a monthly stipend of $50. As of now, the commissioners are mostly bankers and attorneys (i.e. privileged and educated persons), citizens are not aware that the board even exists, and the budget is only $16,000. 

Here are my policy recommendations:

  • Increase monthly stipend to $200 a month (approximately 30 hours per month)
  • Increase funding for promotion of the board for community engagement and outreach
  • Diversify the commissioners to encourage retired officers and lower income persons to join the board via provide additional stipends if needed
  • Partner with local universities to create internship opportunities for diverse criminal justice students to join the civilian review board. 

 

4) Should there be Police Liability Insurance?

The basic principle is that many professionals, such as doctors, have malpractice insurance. In case a doctor makes a grave error, the insurance pays it off, but their premium increases thereafter. Why shouldn’t the police have a similar insurance structure?   

I am Yes for police liability insurance because 

  • it protects taxpayers from settlements costs
  • it encourages the police federation to remove officers that are highly liable (i.e. history of disciplinary actions, anger issues, and/or previous settlements)
  • it encourages individual officers to take personal actions to address trauma, and which will reduce their premium
  • If implemented fairly, it can incentivize city administration to adequately fund the SPPD

For our current police department, if an officer uses excessive force and/or creates collateral damage, the civil settlement comes out from the general fund and not from the police department and/or officer. For example, in Minneapolis, the $27 million civil settlement for George Floyd’s family will be paid by Minneapolis taxpayers, while Officer Chauvin bears no financial burden. Similar to most unions, the police federation makes it difficult to remove an officer even with recommendation from the chief (i.e. arbitration process). In summary, our current policing structure encourages the most liable officers to continue to stay in the department, which places individual citizens at harm’s risk, reduces the integrity of the entire SPPD, and costs taxpayers. 

The police federations already pay insurance in the form of legal fees for court cases involving officers. It can be a requirement for the police federation to include indemnity (i.e. lawsuit payout) insurance, where the premium costs is distributed amongst members. Actuaries from an insurance company can determine the individual liability of each officer, which can include their personal history, criminal record, and policing conduct. The federation can adjust the membership fee structure to increase the premium specifically for liable officers. Individual officers can take treatment to address trauma, and/or other personal issues to reduce their own premium. 

In the long-run, police liability insurance protects taxpayers and weeds out the most liable officers in the police force, improving citizens’ faith in the police department. There may be some legal challenges of implementation as the police federation would rather not pay premiums and be uninsured, and place costs on taxpayers. To be fair to the police federation, the underfunding of the police department will increase their liability, and taxpayers should pay that increase in premium, which should encourage the city to adequately fund the police department.