5 March 2022
Every other week North St. Paul’s new Police Chief Phil Baebenroth takes off the uniform and the gun belt and slips on some sweats to take a jog through the town of 12,000 he’s charged with keeping safe.
Community members, fellow officers and city leaders are invited to join him to discuss concerns ranging from noisy neighbors to the rise of carjackings in the Twin Cities.
North St. Paul has the smallest police force in Ramsey County with just 18 sworn officers and over the years city leaders explored shuttering the department to save money and hire a neighboring police force to patrol the city’s streets, like many of their suburban counterparts.
Today, city leaders — citing the current national tensions between law enforcement and the communities they serve — say they’re more committed than ever to keeping and growing their small town police force.
“The national narrative is so negative right now,” said North St. Paul Mayor Terry Furlong. ” But there are many great officers. They want to engage with the community.”
They hired Baebenroth last fall who’s recruiting new officers, venturing out in the community to meet business owners and community members and enhancing officer training. Baebenroth, 36, a father of four, is also emphasizing officer health, wellness and work-life balance.
While some communities are pulling back police resources, Furlong said city leaders are trying to give their department the tools and support so North St. Paul residents see police in a positive light. The city increased the police budget by 10% this year to $3.4 million to pay for new vehicles, communications equipment and increase police staff by 1.725 positions. The Police Department accounts for more than than 40% of the city’s $7.9 million annual budget.
Other suburbs including Roseville, Blaine and New Brighton are also increasing police staffing and funding to enhance community policing efforts, add mental health and social workers and respond to upticks in calls for service.
North St. Paul City Council Member Candy Petersen said city leaders want to make sure officers have time to stopat the neighborhood lemonade stand and visit with kids and families.
“Every resident should know their cop on their beat. That’s how I feel,” Petersen said
She said she also wants a visible police presence in the city at all times, which might not be the case if they contracted with an outside department.
Even the City Council’s budget hawk, Scott Thorsen, said he’s supportive of investments in the department and maintaining local control.
A clear approach
Born and raised in south Minneapolis, Baebenroth was previously commander of Ramsey County Sheriff’s Patrol operations and was co-commander of the Ramsey County SWAT team. North St. Paul’s expectations around community engagement have been crystal clear, he said.
“The city likes the community policing approach,” Baebenroth said. “With that, you get officers showing up within seconds for calls. You definitely get more involvement and engagement and everything you need in modern day policing, which is officers willing to address any problem that the community brings.”
In an effort to boost morale and better understand what the community values from police, Baebenroth started a community police award where members of the community nominate officers based on positive interactions.
According to crime statistics, violent crime in North St. Paul is not the norm. The city reported just one homicide between 2010 and 2020. Rapes and robberies are typically in the single digits. Property crimes account for the biggest number of cases.
But even small towns are not immune from tragedy.
In September 2009, North St. Paul police officer Richard Crittenden was shot and killed while responding to a domestic disturbance.
The challenge of filling openings
Baebenroth said the biggest challenge now is finding new talent. Job openings that once attracted hundreds of applicants now draw just a handful; interest in police work has waned.
So far, Baebenroth has not used signing bonuses to lure officers, but has touted the support of city leaders his department enjoys.
“It’s the old adage you get what you pay for,” said Bob Engwer, chair of North St. Paul Police Civil Service Commission, who adds that he supports recent investments in the Police Department.
“It’s worth taxpayer money to make sure we have the things we need for good policing,” he said. For example, he was happy to hear the chief wants to improve officer training when interacting with residents with autism and other health conditions.
Other suburbs also investing
North St. Paul is not the only suburbs bolstering its Police Departments.
- New Brighton added a police sergeant position this year and saw its budget increase by nearly 4% to about $6 million.
- Roseville added five officers and a sex crimes investigator in the past two years.
- Blaine is adding four police officers, a civilian community outreach position and a police dog.
“I have heard from several chiefs that their city leaders are not in the mindset to defund, but are investing in public safety so their cities are safe,” said Jeff Potts, executive director at Minnesota Chiefs of Police Association.
Potts said it’s not universal across all suburbs but he said many are adding mental health workers and specialized teams to deal with complex social problems that are often the root of emergency calls. Departments are also hiring more officers so they have time to make those community connections. He said some schools are reversing the trend of banning school resource officers and are now asking to bring them back.
Blaine’s city leaders support the police and so do community members, said police Capt. Joe Gerhard.
“We conducted a community survey last year. The number one thing the community wanted to see is more cops in the neighborhoods,” Gerhard said. A likely factor is that calls for help “are going up year after year” in the fast-growing suburb.
North St. Paul officer Miles Wakumoto said he and other officers appreciate the added time and attention being spent to get to know the community.
“It doesn’t have to be a high-priority call but I feel like the residents can expect to be contacted by a police officer,” Wakumoto said. “It shows that we’re actually taking their complaints seriously. We are working for them. We are solving problems for them.”
North St. Paul High School Principal Kevin Wolff said Baebenroth called him and asked him for a meeting. Wolff said it’s the first time in his career that a police chief proactively reached out.
“From the moment he got hired, he connected with me,” Wolff said. “We text all the time. He is super collaborative. He has a passion for the education side of things.”
North St. Paul police have a school resource officer at the high school. That officer, AmberKatherine DeCory, was instrumental in disarming a student who took a gun to school in December without incident.
DeCory, recently promoted to sergeant, appreciates the energy and advocacy Baebenroth has brought. The renewed support of city leaders has raised morale, she said. As an African American officer, she believes the department is heading in the right direction.
“He believes in being accessible to the community. His passion for policing is infectious. It makes you say: ‘I remember why I became a cop,'” DeCory said. “I feel like I am in a city that really loves and supports their police because they have full access to us.”