St. Paul Chief of Police Todd Axtell didn’t know what kind of cop he would be until he started working the beat.
One night, as he and another officer were out on patrol, they encountered a man who was “intoxicated and down on his luck.” As the other officer looked for the man’s identification, he tossed papers from the man’s wallet on the ground. The officer then turned to walk back to his squad car and left the items for the drunk man to pick up.
Axtell stayed. He bent down and scooped up the bits of paper, handing them back to the man sitting on the steps. It was a small gesture, a minute among hours of patrolling, but it stuck with him.
“From that moment on in my career, I knew how incredibly important it was to treat people with respect,” he says.
Now, sitting in his stately corner office, Chief Axtell runs the oldest police organization in Minnesota.
“That [experience] has really driven me in my entire career. Today more than ever in police agencies, we have to serve with respect,” says Axtell, who knew he wanted to be a cop for as long as he can remember. His grandfather was an officer in the tiny town of Silver Bay on Lake Superior. “He was well respected. He was kind.”
The city — even the country — saw Axtell’s philosophy play out last November. A video was released of Frank Baker, an innocent St. Paul man, being mauled by a police canine. Axtell did something relatively unprecedented for a police chief: He apologized.
“This is where law enforcement has historically struggled,” says Axtell. “Having the tendency to not own our mistakes when they happen.... What we did with the Frank Baker incident was making sure that officers observed from their police chief that it’s okay to apologize when you’re wrong. That’s how you change culture.”
Earlier that summer, when a cyclist scolded Axtell on camera for passing him too closely on a narrow St. Paul street, Axtell pulled over to a parking lot to listen to the biker and offer him a business card. The exchange, also caught on camera, shows an even-tempered Axtell explaining that he didn’t mean to pass so closely and thanking the cyclist.
“Watching the results of staying steadfast to the respect philosophy, it’s just paid dividends in every corner of my career,” Axtell says. “And it doesn’t just apply to when I work. It applies to how I interact with my family, my friends, and my community.”