St. Paul’s Mayor Carter rejects simple answers to gun violence

Photo courtesy of St. Paul Mayor's Office Mayor Carter works the crowd at a St. Paul community meeting

He’s pushing for ‘proven community-based interventions’

“We’ve been saying for 20 years when we hear shots fired that this is a public health crisis,” says Saint Paul Mayor Melvin Carter. What’s called for in his view is “a public health approach to public safety.” In November 2019, the mayor initiated this “public health approach” by submitting his Community-First Public Safety 2020 budget proposal to the Saint Paul City Council.

Mayor Carter is a fourth-generation Saint Paul resident, born in the historic Rondo neighborhood. He is the son of Toni Carter, a Ramsey County commissioner and retired 40-year St. Paul police veteran. He lives in Rondo with his wife, Dr. Sakeena Futrell-Carter, and their children.

His proposal states, “Our Community First Public Safety Framework seeks to transcend crime response to build a compelling crime reduction strategy for Saint Paul—informed  by deep public engagement and published academic research—that identifies and addresses root causes of neighborhood safety concerns.”

Mayor Carter presented a supplemental Community First Public Safety budget proposal to the City Council this past fall, which was passed in December as part of our 2020 city budget. That budget includes $2.9 million in new investments such as Healing Streets and Community Ambassadors, in addition to our $173 million investment in our emergency responders. In total, this amounts to $176 million in public safety investments for the 2020 City budget.

Mayor Carter (MC) recently spoke with the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder (MSR) in detail about the issue of public safety and a practical solution to the problem of gun violence.

 MSR: You’re the mayor of all of Saint Paul, but there is the obvious aspect of your being Black (the first Black mayor of St Paul) and gun violence disproportionately impacting Black communities. Can you speak to that?

MC: I’m mayor of Saint Paul and I’m a Black man. All my life, I’ve known a community that has been plagued by gun violence. My father’s best friend and cousin, closest cousin, two of them were murdered when he was 25. I had a cousin killed on Selby Avenue over a gold chain when I was growing up. In junior high school, a peer my age was found murdered.

So, one of the things most important, as I hear people say we had too much gun violence in Saint Paul last year, is to remember we’ve had too much gun violence for a long time in our community. Too many people shooting guns, getting illegal guns… Somehow [there is] this flow of illegal guns into our community. So many people hurt.

MSR: There’s been significant debate recently about ShotSpotter, which helps identify where shots are fired.

MC: The issue really is public safety in general. It’s such a bigger concept. If we like the public safety outcomes we’ve gotten, we should continue the strategies we’ve employed. If not, we have to fundamentally rethink our approach.

An approach that starts after a shot has been fired—after somebody has been hurt, to try and catch the person who did it and help whoever’s hurt—as important as that is, it’s not enough. We have to go far upstream. That’s what we’re working on, what our conviction is.

MSR:  Talk more about prevention?

MC: Prevention, intervention, the whole eco-system. Talk to any parent, pastor, teacher, rec leader or youth leader. They’ll tell you if young people have access to jobs, can afford the tennis shoes and haircuts they want…some have to bring home money to feed their families. If families are housing stable, have the ability to put food on the table and pay the rent, we would see [an] incredible increase in public safety outcomes.

One of the reasons we’re expanding our youth employment program is we’ve seen it decreases violence by 43%. Our after-school programs are because juveniles are most likely to commit violent crimes immediately after the school day.

People point to curfew hours. It sounds good, but, the research shows young people are most likely to have their lives impacted by crime right after school is over. Curfew laws wouldn’t address those challenges in the way that free, after-school programs that are challenging and engaging would.

We are where we are [due to] a generation of public safety strategies that sound good but [haven’t been held] to outcomes for our community. We cannot accept…recycling the same old strategies from the ‘80s and ‘90s [that] we already know didn’t work and don’t make our communities safer, but destabilize our neighborhoods. We’ve got to be more creative and thoughtful than that.

MSR: You aren’t a proponent of ShotSpotter, which is supposed to be effective locating gunfire. You called it a technological toy.

MC: I didn’t say that to be disparaging. ShotSpotter is a valuable tool. My phone is a toy, our iPads, computers are toys, a device. Unless somebody is using it well, in a strategic way to produce outcomes, just putting [it] up on a pole or a building won’t fundamentally transform public safety outcomes.

I won’t have a photo-op or make some announcement that looks and sounds good, that makes for a good headline, but I can’t justify it based on evidence and independent research. I won’t accept over-simplified thinking. We have to have a comprehensive plan, not just buy a device.

We [also] need a transparent accounting of the full cost. There’s an article in the International Association of Chief of Police’s ‘Police Chief Magazine’ [‘The Hidden Costs of Police Technology: Evaluating Acoustic Gunshot Detection Systems’] which found that somebody dialing 911 is seven times more valuable in terms of producing actionable information for police offices than [is an] automated alert. And that when someone knows they have that technology on their block, they’re less likely to call 911.

So, technology could and has, in some jurisdictions, resulted in a lot more work for officers and, actually, a decrease in the actionable information they can use to solve crime. That’s obviously something that wouldn’t be a positive effect. We need a strategy to mitigate that.

I’m not making arguments against buying the system. I haven’t said no to it. What I’ve said is what I say for every single investment—we need to show our community what is the evidence for it, what is the logic through which we’re justifying the proposition.

MSR: There’s often the claim that law enforcement needs to come down harder, but over-policing hasn’t worked.

MC: On background, tough-on-crime strategies have not resulted in safer outcomes for our neighborhoods, but more incarceration that disproportionately impacts our communities of color. That’s why our community-first public safety plan invests in proven community-based interventions that connect residents to stability.

We can’t pretend there’s any one thing we can do that’s going to fundamentally change the world for our community. It’s going to take a series of things. We know our police officers can’t do it by themselves.