Last October Todd Axtell announced his decision to step down from his position as Police Chief of the City of St. Paul. This past Thursday, almost 200 people gathered to give Chief Axtell a fantastic send-off (most assuredly just one of many), marking the conclusion of his 33-year career. Saying goodbye to the Chief, wishing him well in future endeavors, was bittersweet. Ever an inclusive, people-first leader, Chief Axtell embodies the essence of our well-respected police force: “trusted service with respect.” He will be missed.
The event was at times funny, touching, poignant. He was honored by friends and colleagues, thanked most sincerely by the Minnesota Wild owner Craig Leipold, teased playfully by former Mayor Chris Coleman. He was congratulated by former Chiefs Harrington and Smith, and retired City Councilmembers and police officers Debbie Montgomery and Dan Bostrom, the latter who was Axtell’s boss many years ago on the force. When it was his turn to speak, even then – on a day celebrating him - Axtell turned his comments towards the police department members, both sworn and unsworn, thanking them for their dedication.
Back in October Axtell offered thoughts on his departure, and they echoed for me on Thursday. He said, “I’ve learned from those I admire that when you possess the heart of a public servant, you never stop trying to make a positive difference in the lives of your neighbors.” Indeed.
Since he took the helm in 2016, Axtell ushered in changes and lived by his commitment for ever-increased transparency and accountability. He encouraged historic levels of community engagement, and was committed to diversifying the department and embracing innovative ideas that can help people stay out of the criminal justice system.
Some key examples include: under Axtell’s leadership, the SPPD initiated the expansion of its training program to include crisis intervention training for all officers, Ethical Policing Is Courageous (EPIC) training, moral courage training, de-escalation and disengagement training, and use of force training that emphasizes reductions in injuries to subjects and officers. The SPPD also established the Law Enforcement Career Path Academy (LECPA), focused on recruiting diverse adults between the ages of 18-24 who reside in Saint Paul and come from a low-income family or who face a barrier to employment. The 2019 SPPD Academy class included the first LECPA graduates, helping to make it the most diverse class in the history of the department—30 of the 39 graduates were women and/or BIPOC. This has helped diversify the SPPD ranks; at the end of 2020, 28 percent of officers were BIPOC, compared to 18 percent just four years earlier. In addition, in March of 2021, Chief Axtell signed the 30x30 pledge, to work towards increasing the number of female recruits at SPPD to 30 percent by 2030.
Another example of innovation can be found in the SPPD’s Community Outreach and Stabilization Unit (COAST), which is a program based on two nationally recognized police mental health collaborative best practices—a co-responder program and a case management program. The unit, which was originally launched in 2016 to focus on mental health calls, has expanded over the past couple years to include a chemical dependency program and a homeless/un-sheltered outreach program. It is a shining example of what can be accomplished when communities, social service providers and police departments work together to address emerging issues in innovative ways.
These changes and many others have helped to make the Saint Paul Police Department a model for excellence in policing.
Axtell wrote to the department’s officers last October that they’ve “taken what those who came before us built and made it stronger. You’ve watched over St. Paul through unprecedented unrest,” he wrote to them. “You’ve responded to human tragedies that our community has never before experienced. You’ve worked longer hours with fewer colleagues and never stopped being there for the people in the throes of life’s worst moments. And you’ve done it all under glaring and often harsh scrutiny. I’m so incredibly proud of all of you.”
The same can be said about you, Todd. We are better for your service, and are deeply grateful for your commitment to service and to our city.
On a side note: St. Paul has named a police chief selection committee. I applied and was accepted on the committee. Meetings will begin in late May/early June. I’ll keep you all posted on the progress.
See you in the trenches.
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