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Part 2: Talking to Saint Paul Mayor Melvin Carter About Public Safety

Equity coverage is supported by underwriting from African American Leadership Forum

This is Part 2 of our conversation with Saint Paul Mayor Melvin Carter, who talked to us about community inclusion, public safety, and leadership.

How are you working to shift narratives in St. Paul about what public safety actually is?

My theory is everybody already knows what safety is. We know what safety is where our parents, children, spouses, and ourselves are concerned. When we start talking about public safety, we get confused a little. Because then we’re not just talking about people we love and are personally invested in keeping safe and secure. We’re talking about an abstract public concept.

When it comes to people I love, my job is to ask, “what are all the bad things that could happen? How do I take some action or make some investment to reduce the likelihood that they will be harmed?” 

When it comes to public safety, probably for the history of our country, we are not doing the same to consider “how do we identify the trends and repetitive cycles in communities, and interrupt them, to prevent harm from happening in the first place?”

Any public safety political conversation is either a conversation about police, about prisons, or about prosecutors. What they have in common is they’re about what happens after something terrible happens. 

My father is a retired St. Paul Police officer. I think the work our police officers, our firefighters, and our paramedics do is absolutely sacred. It’s emergency response, which is really critical. 

But public safety has to be a scaled up version of what safety means when I’m talking about keeping my children safe in my home. When I want to keep my toddler safe. I think about the guards on the oven and the pads on the corners and the outlet covers. 

If a police chief is worried that his or her city will be the site of the next shooting, I’ll show you a place that hasn’t been invested in from the standpoint of safeguarding a community [which is more than policing]. 

We’ve made some incredible progress in St. Paul, both in terms of the infrastructure we’re building in public safety, and the results that we’re getting. We’re seeing violent crime decreasing, and our ability to respond, and work together as a team, is becoming stronger than ever. 

One of the things that’s given us the ability to make progress is that we in St. Paul have identified a lane that doesn’t get stuck in the “community versus police” dichotomy. If I get pulled over by the police, in order for that officer to be safe, I have to feel safe. In order for me to be safe, that officer has to feel safe. We’re either both in a safe situation or both in a dangerous situation together. 

How have you brought community into the conversations?

One of the core tenets of our administration is public engagement. When we were building the St. Paul Promise Neighborhood, there was a day when a national leader visited. We saw schools, business leaders, nonprofit leaders, and met with all these people. I was asked, “You have all these leaders and nonprofits, and this goodwill in Minnesota, but you still have all these disparities. What’s the problem?”

It was a shocking question from an outsider coming in. As I think about the disparities that we experience in Minnesota, I’m convinced that disparities are an outgrowth of decision-making processes. One of the things my Cabinet and I talk about is that you cannot produce inclusive outcomes with exclusive processes — every decision that anybody ever makes is made to benefit the decision maker. So if we want our funding or public investments to benefit a broader set of people, the only logical conclusion is to have a broader set of people be a part of the decision-making process. 

When I first got elected, and ever since, every member of my cabinet has been hired through a community-based process. Instead of having a closed door team, we’ve invited community members to be a part of deciding who should get interviewed during the first round of interviews, who the finalists are, and sending a handful of names to me to interview as finalists.

Every budget that is brought to this city council has had the fingerprints of at least a few hundred St. Paul residents on it who have helped us design the values that we want that budget to advance. When we raised the minimum wage in St. Paul, we did it with union leaders and the Chamber of Commerce at the table together having a real conversation. 

Our public safety conversations have been the same. If we’re going to do something big, we have to do it together. So we built this Community First Framework with the police union president and Black Lives Matter leaders sitting at the table in conversation with one another. We ask, “How does this make sense? What about that?”

You become more capable and smarter if you listen to people other than yourself, particularly when they have a different opinion than you. Our Community First Framework probably received the most robust response of our calls for public engagement — we’ve had meetings with 750 people, and I would guess that upwards of 2000 St. Paul residents had some part in building this framework. That means there are a lot of people in the community who recognize it as their vision for the city, not mine.

What do you say to the fear by some that if you get too many people at the table, you can’t decide or agree on anything?

When I was younger, there was an effort I was trying to build. My notion was that I would not be the leader — we’re all the leader. I created this big meeting with a lot of amazing people. We were all sitting in a circle, with no direction. Nothing ended up happening. I also have learned that we can rely on process — “we need more process” — which essentially means, “let’s kick the can down the road more.” 

So, residents helped us through community conversations define the values that have to go into the budget — it’s still my job to build a budget, and put the line items in there. To be able to come back to community members and be able to say, “let me show you how the values that you directed us to carry forward are baked into the budget proposal that we brought to the city council.”

Leadership is about how you engage people in an authentic public process, or being a leader that moves a process forward efficiently and effectively. Both can happen. It requires a lot of security on the part of leadership. It’s also important that we never ask for community engagement and feedback on something I already know how I will decide. That would not be authentic. But I tell hiring panels, for example, that I might not pick the person you were hoping I would pick, but my fingerprints will be on every page you give me. I will look carefully through the feedback. And so I think that’s an important balance for us. 

When we are evaluating individuals for a job, I am responsible to build a team. But I don’t need our community members to say “this is the first best person and this is the second best person and this is the third best person.” I need them to give me an analysis of each individual — strengths they bring, the learning points they have, the type of coaching and environment in which they would thrive. 

Can you share more about the struggle between understanding the different needs of public safety and emergency response?

I think the problem in this country is that we haven’t figured out how to dislodge the two. Similarly, I read books and see movies about the Vietnam War era, when we couldn’t figure out how to support our troops while opposing a war. At some point, we realized we can separate those two. The first item of supporting our troops is not sending them into bad conflicts. The first item of supporting our police officers is sending them into stable communities. That’s an important realization. 

Probably more than half the times when people call 911, it’s not because violence or crime is occurring. It’s not even because there’s an emergency. It’s because someone is concerned about something — a person who is homeless in the park, or someone experience a mental illness issue, or emotional or chemical crisis. All of my life I’ve heard people say, “our police can’t do it by themselves.” But then we stop the conversation there and leave our police to do it by themselves. 

We need to build out a set of optimal responders. If someone is homeless, what they need may not be a police officer but a housing counselor, a social worker, an emergency medical technician. Our job is to ask how to build a broader toolkit. If all you have is a hammer, then everything looks like a nail. A broader toolkit enables us to actually solve the problems and interrupt the cycles that lead to people calling 911 over and over again. It helps us keep our officers able to do what we all assume they are doing. 

Now we’ve got leadership, particularly in our police department, that is excited and supportive with this approach to public safety. 

Public safety isn’t the police department’s job and it isn’t the fire department’s job.

We have to think about how our recreation centers are relevant to public safety; I was busy at the rec center when I was a kid, and I couldn’t get into trouble because my parents had me so engaged with activities. After I became mayor, we eliminated participation fees for youth sports. Dropping those fees led to significant increases in the number of young people participating in after-school programs and recreation centers. The elimination of late fines increases library use in St. Paul, in an era where library use is decreasing elsewhere. 

Every time our children are at a basketball game, or checking out a book, they’re not somewhere else getting into trouble.

Our Department of Public Works impacts public safety by recognizing simply that a lit block is safer than a dark block. We started a process a few years ago to identify blocks with unsafe cycles happening. We asked, “Are the sight lines clear? Is the lighting right? How does the physical environment impact the outcomes that occur here?” We are asking neighbors to bring us recommendations for how to make particular spaces safer.

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