Before embarking on a boat trip with friends last summer, Todd Axtell bought a satellite phone that he thought would work while he was rocking on Lake Superior. For the past six years, the St. Paul Police Chief has been available 24 hours a day. He even took a call on his honeymoon in Las Vegas that cut the trip short.
“That’s about as far away from my phone as I’ve ever been,” he said in a recent interview, gesturing to his desk a few feet away.
After leading the Minnesota capital’s police force through a global pandemic, a stretch of record-breaking gun violence and civil unrest, Axtell is ready to pull the plug. He is retiring Wednesday from the St. Paul Police Department after 33 years with the agency.
Although many aspects of his profession came under scrutiny, Axtell remained a popular leader in St. Paul. And it wasn’t just the crisis calls he took – Axtell was constantly answering questions and inquiries from politicians, business owners, activists, journalists and countless others 24 hours a day.
“He has a universal trust and respect that is truly unique,” said B. Kyle, President and CEO of the St. Paul Area Chamber of Commerce.
“The continuity we’ve seen over the years has built trust in the community,” said Wa Houa Vue, former president of the Hmong 18 Council.
“Every time we’ve asked to meet with him, it’s been within 24 hours,” said Tyrone Terrill, president of the African American Leadership Council. “He will be missed.”
Raised in a trailer park in Northfield, Axtell’s hero was his late grandfather, a police officer in Silver Bay, Minnesota. After high school, Axtell earned a law enforcement degree and began his career in the small town police department. In 1989 he found his dream job in St. Paul.
Axtell, 54, rose quickly through the ranks, working in all three districts, gang unit, narcotics and special investigations. Former Mayor Chris Coleman radiantly remembers Axtell’s parents Bill and Elaine when he was sworn in as chief in 2016.
The next day, Axtell’s phone rang: a man named Frank Baker had been hospitalized after being attacked by a St. Paul police dog and kicked by an officer who mistakenly believed he was an armed suspect.
Two weeks later, Philando Castile was shot dead by an officer in the Falcon Heights suburb. Although St. Paul officials were not involved, they had to face hundreds of protesters who flocked to Interstate 94 and camped outside the governor’s mansion for weeks.
“There were moments in that first summer when I would actually—just because I was exhausted and stressed—in my mind count down the months to a six-year term,” Axtell recalled. “Sometimes it felt more like a sentence than a term.”
Prioritizing engagement and diversity
As he settled into the role, Axtell quickly began working toward three priorities: community engagement, diversifying the police department to better reflect St. Paul’s changing demographics, and combating gun violence.
He immediately created a community engagement unit that oversaw the launch of new initiatives aimed at promoting positive police-public relations.
One such program was the Law Enforcement Career Path Academy, which police say was instrumental in making the department 41% more diverse over six years by removing barriers to low-income recruits.
Axtell is also credited with equipping the department with body-worn cameras, establishing a mental health department, and refocusing on officer training and wellness.
“At a time when police departments across the country are equipped with a really big light and microscope… our department really shone brightly,” Mayor Melvin Carter said. “Chief Axtell’s leadership was critical.”
challenges of violent crime
The escalating gun violence in the capital proved to be the most vexing problem of his tenure.
In the past three years, the shootings have increased — and Axtell has had to scramble to increase Homicide staff to cope with the growing caseload.
In 2020, the city matched its 1992 record of 34 homicides. Last year, St. Paul recorded 38 deaths. And the bloodshed has not abated; 18 murders so far in 2022 means the city is heading for another difficult summer.
The boss has at times feuded with Carter while advocating for more police resources to combat violent crime and check an influx of 911 calls. Carter said that these conflicts between a department head and a mayor are natural.
“They’ve been public because he and I are both pretty passionate about the things we’re pushing forward. And yet, if you cut through all this mess, we have a police agency that we both believe serves our city very, very well,” the mayor said.
Carter named Deputy Superintendent Jeremy Ellison as interim superintendent, overseeing the department’s $128 million budget and 570 sworn officers while the city searches for a permanent replacement.
Balance of discipline and defense
Axtell was quick to recognize that mistakes were being made and was commended for responding to misconduct.
Since taking the helm, Axtell has fired at least seven officers, including five who stood by when an ex-cop attacked a civilian outside an East Side bar.
He also fired the officer who kicked Baker on his second day as boss. Axtell later testified against him in a federal civil rights trial.
Most recently, he fired the officer who shot and injured an unarmed and naked man in 2020. Axtell released a snippet of body camera footage to the public within three days, an unusual level of transparency given that departments have historically expedited the release of such videos only when it helped justify the use of force.
“I swore an oath to our city to always do the right thing,” Axtell said, noting that he assesses each case by asking his officers three questions: “Was the action reasonable, necessary, and respect done?”
If they can answer yes to all three, he vowed to stand behind them. In many cases, Axtell has delivered on that promise by vehemently defending those involved in all four fatal police encounters under his supervision – situations he described as “tragic but totally justified.”
As a result, the St. Paul Police Union maintained a “friendly relationship” with Axtell throughout his tenure.
“Regardless of the circumstances, we’ve always been able to work through differences professionally and move on,” said association president Mark Ross.
“A high standard”
Axtell was going through his mail on one of his last days in office. He received a card from a former county employee and one from a resident he had never met, both thanking him for his service. Further gratitude came in the form of a cake.
Officer Antwan Denson knocked on the door to say goodbye to the chief. Six years earlier, Denson had moved from Atlanta to St. Paul “on a leap of faith.” He heard Axtell promise in a speech to build a more diverse, transparent department. This message resonated with Denson, a black officer who longed for change.
Denson says he made the right decision. Axtell fulfilled his promise to implement key reforms that improved de-escalation training and helped improve community relations.
“I think he holds himself to a high standard – and it’s all part of his model of ‘trustworthy service with respect,'” added Denson, referring to the slogan emblazoned on every St. Paul squad car.
Axtell will return to one of those squad cars during his final shift on Wednesday, when he will respond to 911 calls with his son, a St. Paul police sergeant who joined the force eight years ago.
“I always saw him as Superman,” said Randy Axtell, 30. “It brings me to tears at times how proud I am of how hard he worked and what he accomplished.”
Todd Axtell plans to create an advisory group that will work with public and private organizations on crisis management, security plans, management strategies and more.
He hopes this job will mean working a 40-hour week — “a big improvement,” Axtell quipped, which would give him a lot more time to spend with his family, including seven grandchildren.
He plans to stay in St. Paul and tells well-wishers he will keep the same phone number. But maybe he leaves it to voicemail sometimes now.
“I’m looking forward to seeing how it feels when I wake up and I’m not the boss,” he said. “I hope it feels refreshing. And I hope it feels like ‘mission accomplished’.”