Generation Progress is launching a series of case studies to explore how young people have successfully moved forward the dual priorities of gun violence prevention and criminal justice reform at the local level. Young people understand that if we are to end the gun violence epidemic, we must place it in context with the criminal justice system and policing. To read the full compilation, “Fighting for Our Future,” click here.
ST. PAUL CASE STUDY INTRODUCTION
The city of St. Paul, Minnesota is implementing a public safety strategy that breaks through the standard emphasis on law enforcement. This comprehensive strategy aims to address issues like gun violence and criminal justice reform under a framework that incorporates workforce development initiatives, creates safe public spaces, and welcomes the formerly incarcerated back into civic life. St. Paul’s approach is driven by Mayor Melvin Carter, 38, the first black mayor of the city, who was elected in 2017. Through a bold approach, the mayor is reshaping the city’s approach to public safety, while incorporating civic engagement into everyday governance. Informed by his experience training young people as a community organizer, and his lived experience growing up in St. Paul as a black man, Mayor Carter’s strategy is creating spaces and avenues that bring young people and disenfranchised communities together in a decision-making process that incorporates the voices of residents.
Generation Progress spoke with Mayor Carter and his director of Community-First Public Safety Initiatives, Jason Sole, about the work the city is doing to bring this holistic public safety strategy to life.
A HOLISTIC APPROACH TO PUBLIC SAFETY
Mayor Carter’s governing philosophy is both inclusive and audacious. His views on public safety encompass efforts that address gun violence, welcome returning citizens back to society, and creates trust between city government, law enforcement, and the community through an open and transparent governing process. This strategy, he said, “is rewriting the social compact between our people and the government.”
Mayor Carter and his team are intentional about intersecting gun violence prevention and criminal justice reform. They recognize that not doing so often leads to overcriminalization and over-policing. He rejects what he calls the “false logic” that says that if cities build bigger jails, hire more police officers, and bring in tougher prosecutors, cities will be safer without having to address other elements of public safety. Carter notes that addressing public safety through civic engagement is the key to success, “public safety on the local level is treated like terrorism on the federal level.”
There are four elements to Mayor Carter’s Community-First Public Safety Initiatives:
- Connecting children and families to opportunities so people are less likely to resort to criminal activity.
- Preventing crime by expanding the number of public spaces where community members feel safe.
- Providing a safe and welcoming place for people reentering the community from incarceration.
- Providing law enforcement, first responders, and police officers, with the trust, tools, and training necessary to be able to do their job well.
This strategy builds and expands upon the work of his predecessor, former Mayor Chris Coleman, who centered better funding for after-school programs and community centers in his community safety strategy. The public-private partnership he launched, “Sprockets,” focused on after-school program funding as a key element in addressing racial disparities in the city.
St. Paul’s focus on community policing began with St. Paul Police Chief Todd Axtell, who has pursued these initiatives within the St. Paul Police Department since his appointment. Axtell summed up his approach saying, “my philosophy is pretty simple: get to know people before something happens,” adding “I am a big believer in making a lot of deposits into the bank of trust.” This is a sentiment echoed by Mayor Carter, the son of a retired St. Paul police sergeant. The mayor considers trust critical to keeping both officers and communities safe, saying, “trust might be the most valuable tool we can put into their toolkit.” One product of the conversations between the police chief and Carter was a proposed update to the police department’s use-of-force policies in January 2018, with new guidelines focused on deescalation. For Carter and other advocates, the policies do not go far enough. A series of community conversations led to several updates that were implemented in March of 2018. While advocates are pushing for additional updates to the use-of-force policy, Carter called it a good “first step,” and is working on further updates.
St. Paul’s funding for law enforcement is not independent of other funding considerations. This funding is weighed alongside youth-focused programs. Carter explained that under the old model, funding choices for law enforcement often happened separately from conversations about funding for other city initiatives, with more policing standing as the solution for public safety. “That logic leaves us with no resources to help fund recreational centers, libraries, and other types of community resources that can help prevent crime before it happens,” Carter said.
One of Mayor Carter’s first appointments was Director of Community First Public Safety Initiatives Jason Sole. Sole, a three-time convicted felon, who persevered in pursuing an education during and despite his incarceration, worked as the director of the Minneapolis NAACP and a professor at Metro State University prior to joining Mayor Carter’s team. In his early days on the job, Sole embarked on a series of listening sessions. Because of concerns raised by teens in attendance, he focused his work on remedying the effect that gun violence has on young people specifically.
Sole is also responsible for enacting Mayor Carter’s vision of making St. Paul a welcoming community for returning citizens. In 2014, Minnesota became the third state to enact a “ban the box” law for both public and private employers. The law requires employers to wait until the applicant has been selected for an interview before inquiring about the applicant’s criminal history. Minnesota has also seen significant successes in reducing its recidivism rate through a federal program to aid reentry. With these initiatives in place, and the appointment of Sole, St. Paul is focused on reentry as key to public safety. Programs supporting successful reentry for returning citizens have been shown to have a significant positive impact on children, families, public budgets, and workforce needs.
Mayor Carter inherited a legacy that puts comprehensive public safety first. By strengthening this integrated approach and focusing on young people, St. Paul has become a model for other cities across the country.
A BOLD PUBLIC ENGAGEMENT STRATEGY TO BRING YOUNG PEOPLE INTO CITY GOVERNMENT
While St. Paul’s holistic approach and programming on public safety is notable itself, similarly important are the community engagement strategies that require citizen input, spearheaded by Mayor Carter’s office. This approach, again, comes from the Mayor’s background as a community organizer. When asked what he hopes to accomplish before he left his position, Carter stated, “I don’t want people to know how much power I have, but how much power they have.”
Prior to his successful bid for mayor in 2017, Carter served on the St. Paul City Council, a position he was first elected to in 2008, at the age of 29. During his time on the council, his work with high school students shifted the way he engaged with young people. The teens wanted to stop tobacco companies from marketing to kids with toy lighters and candy cigarettes. Mayor Carter, rather than hearing their concerns and acting himself, this challenged them to write an ordinance. With his office’s guidance, the teens negotiated the language with the city attorney, secured agreements from the necessary council members and the then-mayor for their support, and successfully had the ordinance signed into law. Carter noted that, “what’s better than knowing the law, is knowing you can make the law.” He brings this element of leadership development and training to almost every aspect of his administration.
At the beginning of his term, Mayor Carter, rather than delivering a traditional State of the City Address, turned the State of the City Address into a summit with training and listening sessions. This process led the mayor to adopt a community-based approach to the development of the St. Paul budget. The mayor’s office convened a second summit and invited residents to help build the city budget. Almost 300 people took part in the community budgeting process. “People don’t want you to raise their property taxes, but by having brought people together to see the spreadsheet that shows the current rate would force us to close the library on Sunday or lay off firefighters, 74 percent of attendees ultimately voted for the increase,” Carter said.
To use the power of city government to address racial and economic disparities, Carter’s administration launched a community-based hiring process called Serve St. Paul. As the city’s first black mayor, Carter understands that disparities are often exacerbated through generations of exclusionary policy decisions. When Carter first announced this process, several reporters expressed skepticism as to whether enough people would sign up to participate. Ultimately, more than 300 people applied, because, as Carter explained, “People want to be a part of something, especially right now. People don’t want to just trust that their mayor is in City Hall doing good things. People want to have their hands on this, especially young people.”
When asked if he has trouble getting young people to attend and participate in forums and meetings, the mayor points to the youth-driven overhaul of the police department’s use-of-force policy. In the next few months, he hopes to implement a series of new youth-driven initiatives, including a $15 minimum wage, and dedicated funding for bike lanes. “The problem isn’t that young people don’t care,” Carter said, “it’s that we are having the same conversation, in the same way, in the same place as we always have, and expect young people to come into our conversations. Young people never join anybody else’s conversation and so you have to be willing to open that space up.”
St. Paul and Mayor Carter’s approach to gun violence prevention and criminal justice reform are anchored in a holistic approach to public safety that goes beyond law enforcement. This vision of public safety is implemented through an expansive and bold public engagement strategy that deliberately brings in young people in ways that not only address the issues that they are facing today, but also trains them to be civic leaders.