St. Paul shootings increase. What’s being done?

When shooters injured seven people in separate incidents during a 2½-hour span in St. Paul last weekend, community leaders and officials gathered to decry the violence and urge an end to the “no snitching” mindset.

Dora Jones-Robinson, who says she’s running against Mayor Melvin Carter this year, sharply asked during the news conference, “What are you going to get done, though?”

After Carter stepped back up to the microphone, he said, “What you’re hearing is an exhaustion with rhetoric around public safety. … We have been drowning in rhetoric around public safety that has done everything except keep our neighborhoods safe.”

Carter reiterated that cycles of violence have existed for generations, which is why he said community investments are needed “to get us beyond the place of oversimplified answers.”

As St. Paul, like other cities around the nation, contends with a year that’s off to another grim pace for gun violence, the Pioneer Press asked leaders in St. Paul and those who care about the city: What is the short-term work that’s already being done and what do people see a need for?

Many pointed to youth outreach workers who’ve long been on St. Paul’s streets to try to redirect at-risk youth as one answer. They also talked about the need to make it easier for young people to get jobs, and they said there should be more help for people to heal from trauma, which could prevent retaliatory violence.

Some said the police department, which has been diminished by 35 officers due to retirements and resignations, needs to be able to return to its authorized strength, while others said police aren’t the answer.

Jamond Glass, left, and Joel Franklin of the Community Ambassadors Initiative walk along Rice Street in St. Paul’s North End on Thursday, May 5, 2021. (Scott Takushi / Pioneer Press)

COMMUNITY AMBASSADORS

This summer will mark eight years since the Community Ambassadors Initiative started in St. Paul.

The youth workers, known as “ambassadors,” go out to places where teens and young adults are hanging out. They refer them to programs and services if they are homeless, or in need of counseling or drug treatment. They also work to connect youth to jobs and provide readiness training, said Joel Franklin, the initiative’s director.

With additional funding from the city last year, the program grew from 36 to 50 ambassadors. They went from a yearly average of 3,500 contacts with youth to 14,000 last year, and they increased the number of job spots they could offer through Right Track St. Paul — the city’s youth employment program — to 35 for this summer, according to Franklin.

Joel Franklin (Scott Takushi / Pioneer Press)

Ambassadors took three guns off the streets last year and turned them over to police. On several occasions, they were able to convince a young person who was pointing a gun at someone to put the weapon down, Franklin said.

There isn’t a way to measure how many fights — or worse — the ambassadors have prevented, Franklin said.

“How do you prove a negative?” he asked. “On a daily basis, they’re talking to young people and trying to de-escalate disputes.”

If they had more funding, Franklin said he’d seek to expand their direct services to youth and increase the number of ambassadors on the streets or the times of day they’re working.

MAYOR: ‘SIGNIFICANT’ WORK ON VIOLENCE UNDERWAY

Carter said in a recent interview that there has been “significant” work already underway, and he pushes back against those who say that longer-term plans are “pie-in-the-sky, 20-year type of thinking.”

“We saw in the past year (during the coronavirus pandemic), violent crime spike all over our country as a direct and very immediate response to the spike in unemployment, the spikes in hunger and homelessness, the spike in social isolation,” Carter said. “… We could also create the opposite of that, the positive impact, based on the types of proactive investments that we call for in community.”

St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter addresses the media on Sunday, May 2, 2021, after a string of overnight shootings that left 7 injured. (Scott Takushi / Pioneer Press)

Coordinated work comes in the form of bi-weekly meetings of a community-first public safety workgroup, which includes police, staff from multiple city departments, St. Paul-Ramsey County Public Health, Community Ambassadors Initiative and the St. Paul Downtown Alliance. They talk about, “How are we addressing crime and challenges proactively, how are we investing, what are the trends we’re seeing?” Carter said.

Carter said he wants to use federal funding from the American Rescue Plan “to have a real meaningful impact on our public safety outcomes.”

He said that will mean working with the police department “to determine what their needs are to be able to field a robust response when crises occur.” He’ll also be seeking “a significant investment in mental health” for community members, such as reaching young people who are processing grief and trauma — all with the goal of keeping gun violence “from echoing in retaliatory events,” Carter said.

When gun violence began spiking in St. Paul in 2019, a trend that’s continued, Carter proposed a “community-first” public safety budget for 2020, which the city council approved. The city budgeted $1.4 million for last year and the same amount for this year, focusing on initiatives such as adding community ambassadors and expanding Right Track. Though the pandemic slowed implementation of some of their plans, Carter said work has continued.

MORE GUN CRIMES, FEWER OFFICERS

After St. Paul experienced the worst year on record for people injured by gunfire in 2020, gun violence has continued to increase. There were 63 people shot in the first four months of this year, at least nine of them fatally; in the same period last year, 44 people were shot, five of them fatally.

With a dozen homicides this year, the city is slightly outpacing last year’s 34 homicides, which tied with 1992 for the most killings in St. Paul in a year. Reports of shots-fired have skyrocketed — last year’s 2,300-plus reports were more than double 2019’s numbers. There have been 700 reports of shots-fired this year, up 78 percent from the same timeframe in 2020.

St. Paul Police Chief Todd Axtell told the city council in 2018 that he was seeking to add 50 officers over the next two years, citing St. Paul’s growing population and increasing 911 calls. Carter rejected the idea, saying at the time that the “driving goal shouldn’t be to hire as many officers as possible but to reduce the number of times we have to call police in the first place.”

After a historic high of 635 officers in 2019, the city reduced the department’s authorized strength to 620 this year. Amid the fiscal concerns of the pandemic, the city hasn’t hired new police officers since 2019. Now, there are 585 officers on the payroll and the numbers will continue declining as officers leave the department.

“It’s simply not reasonable that we’re going into the summer this short of officers,” said city council member Jane Prince.

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