The nuance is a shift from centering the responder to one that anchors on a specific challenge or impetus for a call and honors the value of specialized training
In late 2020, Saint Paul Mayor Melvin Carter appointed a 48-member commission to help shape Saint Paul’s approach to a holistic and sustainable public safety model. Membership perspectives on the Community-First Public Safety Commission included business leaders, activists, school administrators, tech entrepreneurs, police officers, many youth and young adults, and a multitude of other lived experiences. The Citizens League was tapped to facilitate the process toward recommendations. I served as co-chair, along with John Marshall of Xcel Energy. The Robina Institute of Criminal Law at the University of Minnesota interpreted existing call-for-service data. Numerous public system and community leaders helped shape understanding of the current context.
The charge before the Community-First Public Safety Commission was to:
Identify alternative first response options for Priority 4 and Priority 5 calls for service;
Offer guidance toward ongoing community engagement in Mayor Carter’s holistic approach to public safety; and
Weigh in on the creation of a City-staffed office to align the moving parts of Saint Paul’s Community-First Public Safety Plan.
Co-chairing this body of work within the constraints of virtual space and the time allotted was challenging. That said, it is hard to put into words how inspired I was to work alongside so many people — with busy day jobs and competing demands for their time and attention — who rolled up their sleeves to chart a better course for shared experience.
The Commission hosted 10 virtual and live-streamed three-hour meetings over the span of five months; each meeting was 3 hours. The intense timeline was in service to activating recommendations for the City’s 2022 budget deliberations between Mayor Carter, the City Council, and the public. Several town hall conversations were also held to share progress, solicit feedback, and gain broader community insight into how to thoughtfully deploy assets to improve overall safety for those who live, work, and play in Saint Paul. The process revealed a lot of common ground.
We started our work five months after George Floyd’s murder. Many of us collectively re-lived the trauma of his murder during the trial of Derek Chauvin and tried to find space to process additional local police-involved shooting deaths that occurred during our time together. Our last meeting happened the week of Chauvin’s guilty verdict and Daunte Wright’s memorial service. A triple homicide that involved a young mother and her children at the hands of a former lover, following a welfare check by Saint Paul Police, affected many on the commission and underscored the gravity of an effort to revisit the role of police in certain circumstances.
It was heavy work. We were intentional about starting nearly every meeting with a centering exercise and the chance to connect in smaller groups. I was surprised by the vulnerability displayed in these moments. Through them, we were able to build a semblance of community among commissioners.
This was far from a perfect process. Commissioners expressed concerns about how time was spent, whose narratives were centered, and the desire to better forecast how the final product would be determined. Those were fair concerns. We tried to be thoughtful and responsive versus allowing the direction to give way to polarization — a feat easier some days than others.
And then there is the reality that a perfect community process does not exist. Community is made up of imperfect people, with their varied lived experiences, motivations, and preconceived notions. Community is made up of people who decide, in all their imperfection, to give themselves toward forming something together. Each perspective was important to the conversation. Critics of the process were invited to stay engaged and offer thoughts, not from the sidelines.
Ultimately, we landed on several overarching goals, or problems we were most committed to solving. Many corresponding recommendations were made. The full report, including meeting minutes, presentations, and supporting research, is here. Those goals are as follows:
The volume and nature of Priority 4 and Priority 5 calls is such that officers often find themselves engaged in matters of behavioral health, human service challenges, undesirable behavior, or traffic violations. While it is important that public systems address quality of life issues, the presence of uniformed police increases the likelihood that something like a mental health crisis results in the criminalization of a person who is already suffering. Additionally, an arrest can catalyze a domino effect of consequences that far outweigh the initial impetus for a 911 call.
Optimizing training in responses
The prevailing sentiment among most, if not all, commission members was that the City should work to ensure that whoever arrives on the scene in response to a call is optimally trained to handle the situation as assessed. Lately, I have started to use the term “optimal response” versus “alternative response.” This may appear to be more semantics than substantive. However, the nuance is a shift from centering the responder to one that anchors on a specific challenge or impetus for a call and honors the value of specialized training.
Efficient deployment of law enforcement
According to Robina Institute analysis, Priority 4 and 5 calls made up nearly 60 percent of all calls for service in 2019; over 40 percent of those calls were initiated by officers. This fact signals considerable latitude in how officer time is spent and opportunity to optimize. Ensuring the most optimally trained individual responds to calls for service can support more strategic use of officer time and safeguard officer wellbeing.
Focus on prevention
An overarching vision among commission members — for what is now known as the Office of Neighborhood Safety — is to foster crime prevention AND a deliberate space to engage neighbors and community-based organizations in the work to ensure that all residents feel safe. Two themes emerged among commissioners, town hall participants, and additional input related to prevention. One was the desire to create consistent opportunities for young people, through extended time for out-of-school programming and access to employment opportunities. The second was a strong desire to lean into neighbors as assets in the work to ensure safety through prevention. This could look like equipping residents to safely interrupt or reconcile conflicts and foster a space for healing.
Improvement of systems and accessibility
Several complicated issues bubbled to the surface of commission discussions throughout the course of our time together. Because of time and scope constraints, we were unable to fully unpack them. Most notable was the absence of a comprehensive data picture — a challenge not unique to St. Paul. Current data collection practices across the continuum of justice system involvement are disparate and insufficient to paint a full picture, which limits the ability to objectively discern patterns in people’s experiences. The absence of a full data picture hampers partnership and work toward accountability as well as the continuous improvement of systems.
What I have admired about Mayor Carter’s approach to a more holistic public safety model is the move toward treatment of violence and crime as a public health issue. This recognizes calls for emergency services are often symptomatic of a complex set of interrelated issues. I know that the Minneapolis Office of Violence Prevention is taking a similar approach.
Safety can be subjective, and privileged perspectives have defined the term over the years — to the detriment of people living along the margins. A public health approach involves a more objective, data-informed assessment of “who, what, how, where and why.” These questions prompt deeper exploration of problems and solutions, and should also invite reflection of the tradeoffs associated with our individual definitions of safety.
Embedded in a public health approach is the goal of reaching a state of wellbeing, which requires the public’s participation versus leaning solely on law enforcement.
You will see this ethos throughout the final report. I am proud of what the Community-First Public Safety Commission accomplished. Together, we moved past talking points rooted in emotion to put forth a set of thoughtful recommendations. The report paints a vision for overall community wellbeing, one that is inclusive of perspectives as diverse as our city.
-- Acooa Lee Ellis
This story first appeared in Minnesota Women's Press