Five candidates answered questions at two public forums
St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman hopes to recommend a new city police chief for city council approval by mid-June. He is finishing up individual interviews with the five finalists. The St. Paul city charter mandates that at least five finalists must be recommended to the mayor from the police chief selection committee.
Minneapolis Police Lt. Eddie Frizell is the only person of color among the five candidates vying to succeed former chief Thomas Smith, who retired last month. The other four are currently working on the St. Paul police force — Assistant Chief Todd Axtell, Senior Commander Tina McNamara, Commander Colleen Luna, and Eastern District Commander Matt Toupal.
“We hope to have somebody announced by the end of June,” said Coleman. The mayor spoke to the MSR after the June 1 candidate forum at Concordia University last week. Progressive Baptist Church hosted the second and final forum on June 2.
St. Paul Human Resources Director Angela Nalezny, who estimated about 120 persons attended the Concordia forum, told the MSR, “It’s in the mayor’s hands now. He will do one-on-one interviews [starting Wednesday, June 3]. Then he will take [time] and think about it, and do any follow-up. He will make his selection and bring it to the city council for approval.”
Frizell heads the Minneapolis Police Department domestic assault unit and has been with Minneapolis since 1993. “I bring a fresh set of eyes” to the department, he said.
Luna heads the St. Paul Police property crimes unit and has been on the force since 1984. “I am a strong leader and can ask the tough questions.”
Axtell, who has been on the force since 1994 and oversees the operations division, said that “a bank of trust” must exist between the community and the police.
McNamara has been on the force since 1993. She is head of the homicide and robbery unit. She pledged “‘round the clock” services for youth and to address mental health concerns.
Toupal, who has been in St. Paul since 1989, said community involvement is very important to him.
Following are several excerpts of the 45 audience questions submitted and asked by Coleman along with the candidates’ responses:
Diversity in the St. Paul Police Department:
McNamara said, “Our department should reflect our community,” adding that money should not be a deciding factor in whether diversity can be achieved or not.
Toupal proposed more community involvement to help increase department diversity.
Axtell pledged that all newly hired officers will be culturally competent.
St. Paul “is naturally diverse” and the city’s police should be diverse as well, said Frizell.
Luna said recruiting should start as early as junior high, setting up a youth feeder program, and diversity also should be reflected in non-police jobs such as property clerks.
Police civilian review board:
Axtell said it is needed, but changes are required “to make it transparent.”
Community input — “an open dialogue” is important, said Frizell.
“I think we need two or four more citizens” on the board, said Luna.
“People want to know about the process and want immediate action,” said McNamara. “But it takes time” in investigating cases.
Toupal said police should be a part of the board, “but I do agree that more [citizen] voices are needed.”
Working with community groups, such as Black Lives Matter:
Luna said “all levels of our police department” should develop relationships with all community groups.
McNamara said that making personal connections is important: “I want to work with Black Lives Matter.”
Toupal said he has relationships with such groups as the St. Paul NAACP, and “we are always looking for new ones.”
“Community engagement has to be the foundation” of the department, said Axtell.
It should be an expectation of the police chief to reach out and work with community groups, said Frizell.
After the forum, Nalezny told the MSR, “I think the community interview is a unique part of this process.” She pointed out that a similar process was used in selecting the last two police chiefs — John Harrington in 2004 and Thomas Smith, now retired, in 2010. “I think it went really well,” she observed.
“These forums are tough,” added Coleman on the candidates having a set amount of time to answer each question.
“I have enough to form a non-biased opinion as a citizen of St. Paul and also a member of the National Black Police Officers Association,” noted Nick Kellum. “I think all the candidates answered the questions,” but he added that the ultimate decision on the new police chief will come from the mayor’s office.
“At least we got the community to voice their opinion and got to see” the five candidates, said Kellum. “Hopefully the mayor will make the decision on what the community wants and not what he wants.”
“We have five good candidates,” concluded Coleman.
Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Charles Hallman is a contributing reporter and award-winning sports columnist at the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder.