In the wake of a national mass shooting, newly picked police chief Todd Axtell spoke of community outreach and engagement with all the people of St. Paul — but noted his department was ready to handle a similar tragedy should the need arise.
Axtell, 48, the city’s current assistant police chief for operations and has 26.5 years with the department, was chosen Monday by Mayor Chris Coleman over four other finalists.
“He has built tremendous relationships in the community, and he has incredible compassion,” Coleman said.
Axtell said he was “profoundly honored to have the opportunity to serve as St. Paul’s next police chief, especially when I consider the exceptional chiefs who have preceded me. …
“My philosophy is pretty simple: Get to know people before something happens. … I am a big believer in making a lot of deposits into the bank of trust.”
The Rev. Charles Gill, president of the St. Paul Black Ministerial Alliance who sat on the committee reviewing applicants for the job, said Axtell stood out as someone who had built an entire career on community engagement, regardless of race or religion.
“It went all the way back, all the way across the board. It wasn’t something he just put together for this process,” Gill said.
Gill was called upon by Coleman to start Monday’s press conference by assembling some local religious leaders — reverends and imams both — to pointedly call Islam a religion of peace. The announcement took place a day after a mass shooting Sunday in Orlando in which a man who had invoked the Islamic State in conversations with authorities killed 49 people.
Reflecting on the shooting, Axtell said, “It’s tragic; it unfortunately is our reality that law enforcement is faced with in America today.
“Last month, 300 St. Paul officers and 150 St. Paul firefighters went through mass-casualty training, including active-shooter training. I’m very confident that St. Paul is well prepared to handle any incident similar to Orlando that happens in our city.”
But, Axtell added, “you have to have prevention, intervention and enforcement. They have to go hand in hand.”
Axtell started as a patrolman in St. Paul’s eastern district in 1989, was promoted to sergeant in 1998 and quickly rose through the ranks.
Though he has lived the city’s Highland Park neighborhood for the past six years, he grew up in rural Northfield, Silver Bay and Brainerd, and previously lived in St. Paul’s Frogtown neighborhood. He was the only applicant who lives in St. Paul.
Sayfuddin Mohamud, 5, listens at the base of the podium as new St. Paul Police Chief Todd Axtell speaks during a new conference in St. Paul on Monday, June 13, 2016. Sayfuddin is the son of Imam Dr. Hassan Mohamud, behind Axtell. St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman named Axtell as the news police chief Monday. The city council will vote on whether to confirm Axtell as chief on June 22. If approved, he would start in his new position the following day.
Since 2013, as assistant chief for operations, Axtell oversaw all uniform operations, covering 450 personnel from beat patrol officers to SWAT and mobile field forces to parking enforcement.
If approved as chief by the city council, he would manage the department’s budget of nearly $110 million, and oversee its more than 700 employees.
He also will face numerous challenges, including leading the department at a time of increased scrutiny over police use of force, particularly in communities of color; combating gun violence; keeping up staffing as the city grows; and implementing a body-camera policy next year.
Axtell said that as assistant chief, he’s been taking a more critical look at use of force — noting community complaints about use of force declined more than 62 percent in 2014-2015 compared with 2012-2013 — and will continue that work as chief.
In addition to building community trust, a goal every chief candidate emphasized, Axtell said he would focus on two other things as chief: further diversifying the department and reducing gun violence.
Axtell noted during the press conference that the police department has a 19 percent diversity rate, compared with 44 percent for the city.
St. Paul city council president Russ Stark predicted Axtell’s confirmation would be an easy one. Four of the city’s seven council members — including Stark, Dai Thao, Dan Bostrom, and Chris Tolbert — stood behind Axtell during Monday’s press conference.
The city council will vote June 22 on whether to confirm Axtell as chief. If approved, he would start in his new position the following day.
City officials said Axtell’s salary has yet to be negotiated, though it would range from $117,000 to $160,000. He earns $135,241 as assistant chief; outgoing police chief Tom Smith made $156,769.
Axtell said he became interested in becoming a police officer at a young age because of his grandfather, an officer in Silver Bay, Minn. He died of a heart attack while mowing his lawn when Axtell was 2 years old.
“I didn’t have the opportunity to get to know him, but I always was intrigued by the fact that he was a police officer,” Axtell said.
Axtell spent the first eight years of his life in Northfield and the next eight years in Silver Bay until Reserve Mining shut down in 1984. His father had been a draftsman at Reserve Mining; his mother was a hairstylist.
“Our home overnight went from being valued at $54,000 to $15,000 the next week, so it was devastating for our family, but my parents are very resilient,” Axtell said. They found new jobs in Brainerd.
Axtell was 16 years old when they moved.
“I was a little disappointed with having to move, but in hindsight it was probably the best thing that ever happened to me,” Axtell said. He was in school and got a job as an usher for Mann Theaters. Axtell came to know Marvin Mann, the longtime head of the theater company. He said he remains good friends with Mann’s sons, who now own Mann Theaters.
“I am a big believer in making a lot of deposits into the bank of trust.” Axtell went to Alexandria Technical College, earned his two-year law enforcement degree and quickly went to work as an officer in Breezy Points/Pequot Lakes, Minn.
“Funny little story about how I got my job there,” said Axtell, who described driving through Pequot Lakes and seeing a squad car parked outside a restaurant. “I stopped in and I saw a younger officer, he was 23 or 24 at the time. I introduced myself and said, ‘I’m looking for a police job.’ I asked him who the chief was and he looked at me and said, ‘You’re looking at him.’ … He hired me at that very moment.”
He worked in the area for a year and half before applying for St. Paul.
“I quickly found out after becoming a police officer that my ultimate goal should have been becoming a St. Paul police officer because it had the best reputation … certainly in the state of Minnesota,” Axtell said.
Axtell has a master’s degree in police leadership, administration and education from the University of St. Thomas. He is also on the St. Paul YWCA’s board of directors, where he serves as co-chair of youth development.
For years, Axtell served as a mentor with 180 Degrees, an at-risk youth program; on the board of Breaking Free, which helps survivors of prostitution and sex trafficking; and on the boards of other St. Paul civic organizations. Axtell also works with the city’s junior police academy to build relationships between young people and officers. Roughly 95 percent of the 500-strong class to graduate this summer are people of color.
Axtell beat out four other finalists for the job, including St. Paul police Cmdr. Colleen Luna, Senior Cmdr. Tina McNamara, interim Assistant Chief Matt Toupal and Minneapolis Police Lt. Eddie Frizell. Axtell was also a finalist to become St. Paul chief in 2010.
Mara H. Gottfried contributed to this article.
By TAD VEZNER | firstname.lastname@example.org
June 13, 2016