Police chief ‘when we really needed him’: St. Paul’s Todd Axtell prepares to step down after term of managing crises

St. Paul Police Chief Todd Axtell speaks to a lunch forum at the Downtowner Woodfire Grill in St. Paul on May 6, 2022. Axtell announced last fall that he would not seek a second six-year term as chief and will step down on June 1. (John Autey / Pioneer Press)

Axtell speaks to a lunch forum at the Downtowner Woodfire Grill. (John Autey / Pioneer Press)

Axtell, right, talks with former St. Paul police officer Melvin Carter Jr. (John Autey / Pioneer Press)

Axtell speaks to a lunch forum. (John Autey / Pioneer Press)

Axtell shakes hands with John Mannillo, right, at the start of a lunch forum at the Downtowner Woodfire Grill in St. Paul. (John Autey / Pioneer Press)

St. Paul Police Chief Todd Axtell speaks on May 6, 2022. (John Autey / Pioneer Press)

St. Paul Police Chief Todd Axtell hugs his friend, Ronnie Brooks, at the start of a lunch forum at the Downtowner Woodfire Grill in St. Paul on May 6, 2022. Axtell announced last fall that he would not seek a second six-year term as chief and will step down on June 1. (John Autey / Pioneer Press)

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Two days after Todd Axtell was sworn in as St. Paul’s police chief in 2016, he received a call from the city’s NAACP president, saying, “We have a problem.”

He told Axtell a 52-year-old man was hospitalized with two collapsed lungs, seven broken ribs and significant K-9 bites to his leg.

“My heart dropped,” Axtell said. He headed to the hospital to meet Frank Baker and find out more.

It turned out that Baker was returning home from work when he encountered officers who mistakenly believed he was an armed suspect. A K-9 clamped onto his leg and an officer delivered three kicks to Baker.

Less than two weeks later, a St. Anthony police officer fatally shot Philando Castile in Falcon Heights, leading to protests in St. Paul and an encampment outside the Governor’s Residence on St. Paul’s Summit Avenue.

Axtell’s time as police chief started out with crises and it didn’t end there — there was civil unrest in St. Paul after George Floyd’s killing in Minneapolis, a record-high number of homicides, and the need to keep officers working through the coronavirus pandemic.

During his six-year term, which ends this week, Axtell overhauled use-of-force policies and training to focus on de-escalation, further diversified the department’s ranks, and strived for transparency by releasing body-camera footage and data about traffic stops.

“Todd happened to be our police chief when we really needed him,” said John Mannillo, a St. Paul community organizer who introduced Axtell before he spoke recently to an informal social issues lunch group. “I think, probably in anybody’s memory, we haven’t had a tougher six years than we had in the last six years.”

RESPONSIBILITY OF THE JOB

Axtell, 54, joined the St. Paul Police Department as a patrol officer in 1989, worked in various jobs throughout the department as he rose through the ranks to assistant chief, and was appointed chief by then-Mayor Chris Coleman in summer 2016.

He knew it would be a difficult job but he said the first summer tested him the most.

“I remember feeling the weight and responsibility of the job at that time,” Axtell said recently. “I found myself wondering what I got myself into and started counting the months rather than the years. There were times that summer it felt more like a sentence than a term.”

But Axtell said he was surrounded by “the best St. Paul police employees I could ever imagine” and “never in a million years would have left” early. He said his proudest times included:

Seeing investigators bring closure to families in difficult cases, such as the recent arrest of a suspect in the rape of a 5-year-old who was waiting for her school bus in 2016.
Pinning the St. Paul police badge on new officers who completed the Law Enforcement Career Path Academy. Axtell began the program with Century College and AmeriCorps for diverse young people who’d face obstacles to become a police officer. Some credits for their associate’s degree are paid for, and they earn money while working in the St. Paul police community engagement unit. Twenty-one graduates have become St. Paul officers since 2017.
Starting the Community Outreach and Stabilization (COAST) unit, which pairs specially trained officers with social workers. The unit works with people who are mentally ill, homeless or chemically dependent.

Tyrone Terrill, president of the African American Leadership Council, said Axtell followed in the footsteps of the chiefs before him in having regular meetings with community leaders, being accessible and willing to listen, all of which builds trust.

“You can’t wait until there’s a crisis,” he said.

HIS QUESTIONS TO OFFICERS: REASONABLE, NECESSARY, DONE WITH RESPECT?
St. Paul Police Chief Todd Axtell speaks on May 6, 2022. (John Autey / Pioneer Press)

How Axtell responded to what happened to Baker set his course as police chief.

In some high-profile instances, including Baker’s, he fired officers who he said violated department policy and betrayed the oath to the badge. The officer who kicked Baker was later sentenced to federal prison for depriving Baker of his civil rights.

On the other hand, Axtell was outspoken in defending officers who people scrutinized, such as when state Rep. John Thompson claimed last summer that an officer racially profiled him during a traffic stop.

Mayor Melvin Carter, who took office in 2018, said he valued the three questions that Axtell emphasized officers needed to be able to answer: Were their actions reasonable, necessary and done with respect? Axtell has said he’ll always support officers who could answer “yes” to those questions.

The police union and Axtell “maintained an amicable relationship throughout his term as chief,” said Mark Ross, St. Paul Police Federation president. “Regardless of the circumstances, we were always able to work through any differences professionally and move on.”

When it came to Carter and Axtell, disagreements between the men about police staffing and equipment sometimes took center stage.

Carter said recently that policy disagreements happen between mayors and department heads and that helps build “the biggest vision that we can possibly do,” though they’re not always so public. He also said it wasn’t personal — he’s known Axtell since before he took office as a city council member in 2008.

“On balance, I’ve greatly, greatly respected Chief Axtell’s leadership and his professionalism,” Carter said. “He and I have sat together in our Emergency Operations Center, through some of the hardest moments in our city’s history. And I’m grateful for our ability to work together … during civil unrest, through a pandemic, through some really tough challenges to see our city through.”

LOOTING, ARSON AFTER FLOYD KILLING

Carter and Axtell were together in the Emergency Operations Center to lead the response to looting that began after Minneapolis officer Derek Chauvin killed George Floyd on May 25, 2020.

“It became overwhelming really quickly because, even if we had a massive number of officers, this was like a whack-a-mole,” Axtell said. When officers descended on one area, people would begin stealing from another business.

“Shortly after that, we started to have fires and I’m thinking to myself, ‘Holy cow. Now it’s going to the next level,’ ” Axtell said. “As we’re trying to gain some stability in our city, we have 36 buildings, businesses that were burned. We had over 300 businesses that were looted” over a several day period.

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As bad as it was, Axtell said he thinks it could have been worse — he said the department had been through additional training in the four years since the Castile protests.

Still, officers were exhausted, “working 20, 30, 40 hours” in some instances without breaks, Axtell said.

On the night of May 30, 2020, a large number of people were marching on Minneapolis’ Lake Street and officers stopped them on the Marshall Avenue Bridge before they entered St. Paul. There were people in the group saying they planned to go to the Capitol and cause damage on the way, according to Axtell, who added the night was a turning point in restoring calm.

GUN VIOLENCE

But there were other nightmarish situations ahead.

Last October, two armed men opened fire in a crowded St. Paul bar — Axtell said he doesn’t know of a worse mass shooting in the city’s history. Marquisha Wiley, a 27-year-old bystander, was killed and 15 people were injured at the Seventh Street Truck Park bar. The two suspects were allegedly arguing about domestic abuse, according to charges against them.

After St. Paul saw homicides that numbered between 16 and 22 per year between 2016 and 2018, there were 30 people killed in 2019. The 34 homicides in 2020 matched the most on record in the city, set in 1992. Then, there were 38 homicides last year and there have been 18 in St. Paul this year.

Most of the homicides have been shootings, and combatting gun violence was one of Axtell’s priorities since he became chief. He said he wished he could have accomplished more, though an area where he saw results was moving more investigators into the homicide unit. The unit’s clearance rate has averaged about 90 percent for homicides, far surpassing the national average.

“It shows when we appropriately investigate and have the necessary victim support, you get results,” Axtell said.

The staffing shifts meant decreasing investigators for other types of crimes, such as burglary and theft, and Axtell said clearance rates for property crimes suffered. He also moved traffic enforcement officers, and those who’d been assigned to horses and motorcycles, to other duties to respond to “the ever-increasing demand for service,” according to Axtell.

AFTER $2M SETTLEMENT, NUMBERS DROP

St. Paul approved a $2 million settlement, the largest on record in the city, to Baker in 2017. Two high-profile incidents of K-9s biting the wrong person also led to publicity and lawsuit settlements.

Axtell and Carter pulled back on the use of police dogs and instituted a more restrictive policy, with increased supervision, which remains in place.

Robert Bennett, a civil rights attorney who represented Baker, said he found Axtell to be a chief who was “willing to do the hard things.” Axtell apologized to Baker and “you could see Chief Axtell’s genuineness,” Bennett added.

Changing overall training — what the department calls “response to resistance and aggression” — has represented a major shift from what St. Paul was teaching its officers before 2015. It’s resulted in lower levels of force and fewer injuries among suspects and officers, Axtell has said.

Police misconduct settlements in St. Paul fell to their lowest amount in at least 20 years, according to Axtell. There were a total of $24,000 in 2019, $5,000 in 2020 and $70,000 as of November 2021.

“He’s really made serious strides and efforts to make sure that policing is done correctly,” said Pastor Richard Pittman Sr., NAACP St. Paul president, who said he found Axtell to be transparent and accountable.

STRESSFUL TIME FOR OFFICERS
Axtell speaks to a lunch forum at the Downtowner Woodfire Grill. (John Autey / Pioneer Press)

It’s been a high-pressure time for officers, as policing has been under a microscope and officers have kept busy responding to calls while staff numbers have been down.

The city asked departments to take cost-saving measures in 2020 and in 2021 due to the pandemic, which avoided city layoffs or dipping into budget reserves and did not raise the city’s tax levy. For the police department, it meant not holding academies to bring on new officers in 2019 and 2020 as officers left to go to other law enforcement agencies, take on different careers or retire.

The police department started an academy last fall and new officers are completing field training, but the department is still more than 40 officers below its authorized strength of 619, not including officers who can’t work in patrol due to medical reasons, Axtell said. The plan is to begin another academy in August.

The St. Paul officers’ contract expired at the end of 2020 and the union is scheduled to go to arbitration with the city in August. Axtell wrote in a February letter to Carter that, without a new police contract, the city would continue to lose officers to “other agencies that offer higher wages and more robust benefits.”

Through the Law Enforcement Career Path Academy and other recruitment efforts, the department’s diversity increased 41 percent over the six years.

“We know when we’re reflective of the community we serve, we have much more trust,” he said.

WHAT’S NEXT

Wednesday will be Axtell’s last day at the police department. He plans to spend some of it responding to calls with his son, a St. Paul sergeant, which is a tradition for retiring St. Paul officers with family members who are also on the job.

Axtell is starting a consulting firm, the Axtell Group, and he intends to work with public and private-sector organizations on safety and security consulting, crisis management and communication, and management consulting.

He’s looking forward to spending more time with his family, including his wife, Lisa, his two adult children, two stepdaughters and seven young grandchildren.

Carter named Deputy Chief Jeremy Ellison as interim chief while the search for a permanent chief is underway. Carter said he plans to appoint the city’s next chief in late summer or early fall. Related Articles
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