Interrogation

How the First Black Mayor of St. Paul, Minnesota, Is Thinking About This Moment

“I think it is just absolutely clear beyond a shadow of a doubt that a public safety framework that is just police, prisons, and prosecutors doesn’t work.”

Melvin Carter
Melvin Carter. Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Jesse Grant/Getty Images for Community Corporation of Santa Monica.

In the summer of 2017, Melvin Carter III was in the midst of his first mayoral campaign in St. Paul, Minnesota. A native of the city and a member of the City Council for nearly a decade, Carter was then the presumptive favorite among a field of six strong candidates.

Then August came. Carter already had a contentious relationship with the city’s police department and its largest union. Unlike his most formidable opponent, Carter advocated for reforms instead of hiring more officers and wanted to keep police off of the city’s civilian review board.

But in August, Carter’s home was broken into, and, among other things, two handguns were stolen. The union seized on the incident, releasing a letter that faulted Carter for not providing police with the guns’ serial numbers and said the burglary put “two more guns and more bullets on our streets at a time when our city is seeing tragic levels of gun violence.”

The head of the union later apologized, saying he didn’t mean to “revictimize” the Carter family. But in the same letter, he also accused Carter of saying the department was made up of “racists.”

The relationship only worsened from there, as Carter emerged from the field to win his November election and become the city’s first black mayor. Today, Carter says he has no relationship with the union.

That background made Carter an especially prescient political figure after George Floyd was killed while handcuffed and pinned to the ground by a Minneapolis officer’s knee on May 25. As the Minneapolis-St. Paul metro area has roiled with angry protests following Floyd’s death and years of accusations of racist police abuse, Carter has openly reflected on his connection to Floyd and the thousands of black protesters and called for more accountability from law enforcement.

“If we won’t hold these officers accountable, then it’ll just be another painful reminder in a mountain of evidence that tells our young—in particular, our young African American men that their lives are not valued in the same way as other people’s lives are,” Carter told PBS the day after Floyd’s death.

On Wednesday afternoon, I talked to Carter on the phone. During our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, we discussed his earlier efforts at police reform in St. Paul, his family history with the police, and his group text with black mayors across the country.

Joel Anderson: So, I’m curious to know what plans you had for the year prior to March. You had just come off this hard-fought—some might say nasty—battle on organized trash collection, you eliminated library fees. What were your plans coming into the year before the world changed on you?

Melvin Carter: The first thing is: I don’t remember. I have no idea. It seems like 10 years ago. So beyond that, we came into this year to pass a fair housing policy agenda. We’ve compiled a handful of fair housing policies that we’ve literally spent all of last year kind of studying and doing community engagement around. Hopefully we’ll get that passed in the next few weeks. So that, coming into the year, was a big priority. But then also, this. You know, the stuff we’re talking about right now. In 2019, we had a real unusual and real heartbreaking surge of shots fired in our city. And so we ended the year on a governmental budget proposal around this concept called community-first public safety. We created a $1.7 million public safety initiative, so it’s $1.7 million of city money, and then boosted with outside resources to bring it to about a $3 million investment in public safety that’s centered around new jobs, that’s centered around mental health support, that’s centered around things like helping to ensure that people who return to our community from incarceration can access stable housing, and establishing a public health approach to violence prevention.

And the controversy around the proposal was that it didn’t add police officers, and the conversation we had with our community was, I can’t tell you that five more officers here or 10 more officers there would reliably, predictably reduce the number of shots fired that we see in our community, but I can tell you that if we invest in our young people, if we invest in families, if we invest in community-level stability, that’ll help people not be as desperate in our community. And when people aren’t desperate, they don’t act out of desperation in the same ways.

Across the river in Minneapolis, there’s a plan to disband the city’s police department. What do you think about that?

I think it is just absolutely clear beyond a shadow of a doubt that a public safety framework that is just police, prisons, and prosecutors just doesn’t work. We’ve bought into that notion, we’ve bought into that logic, and that logic is part of what’s destabilizing our communities. It creates an enforcement bias, which contributes to overcriminalization of black and brown men. It drives a wedge between community members and police officers, who are seen as possessing unlimited and unchecked power to wield deadly force, but with no capacity or expertise to be the social workers and mental health providers. And so ultimately, the traditional public safety toolkit that we’ve employed in the United States, all of it starts after a crime has been committed. And so at some point, I think Americans across our country are calling us out, I don’t know how to phrase this—ultimately, what I want to say is calling BS, right?

No, I hear you, right.

How’s that going to actually make us safer from crimes happening in the first place? So what we’re hearing, and I would agree, is that if we really want safe neighborhoods, we’re going to have to invest much more intensively and much more deeply in the type of family, neighborhood, child-level investments that we all know can produce stability before a crime is already committed. So between this kind of expanded view of public safety and a real intentional focus on rewriting use-of-force policies, as folks ask me what I’m going to do now that George Floyd has been killed, I tell them we’re already doing it.

This approach has created a contentious relationship with the police union in particular, since you started running for mayor. How would you characterize your relationship with the police department before George Floyd was killed?

Well, that’s two different questions. I see police officers every day, and they know that they have my respect, they know that my father served nearly three decades in that uniform. They know that I work closely with their chief, and I never miss an opportunity to shake their hand or give them a fist bump and thank them for their service for our community. So my relationship with our rank-and-file officers, my relationship with our police department leadership and the men and women who serve our city with distinction I think is very strong. I don’t have a relationship with our police union.

Is that something you’d like to change?

You noted the campaign attack that our police union staged back in 2017. I think one disappointing development in all of this is the distortion of unions. Unions exist for the entire purpose of protecting and helping to safeguard someone like George Floyd. And when we use a union, like police unions all over the country have become used for, when we use a union to shield someone’s ability to wrongfully take a life and to exact unreasonable, unnecessary, and unjust force against working-class Americans, people like George Floyd, people like Eric Garner, then it’s a perversion of what the goal of the labor movement was in the first place.

You mentioned your father. How did his experience on the force shape your understanding of police and their relationship with the community?

There was a lawsuit that required the intention of desegregation of the St. Paul Police Department. So they ended up bringing in a class of African American officers, and he was in that first class that they brought in, of people who represented the community. And so I learned kind of two different things from him.

I remember my father telling me the stories of the officers who would tell him, “I’m never going to back you up, no matter what happens.” Or the officers who would tell him, “My only problem with you is you have a job that a white person could have.” I remember when my father wanted to take the sergeant’s exam, we would go to sleep at night and he would have his stuff, his books spread out over the kitchen table, and I would wake up in the morning and he’d be back up at the table before I woke up in the morning to study. He ended up scoring the second highest on that sergeant’s exam, and the chief at the time launched an investigation into how he did it. I don’t know why you would launch an investigation into the second highest and no investigation into the first highest. But that’s what happened.

I remember him being stationed as the first African American officer to work beats in the places that, at the time, were known as the most racist and hostile parts of town for African Americans. And so I would remember those things, but then, intriguingly, on the flip side, I would go to Super Bowl parties, or to Fight Night, and be surrounded by officers who lived in my neighborhood, who loved our community, whose kids I went to school with, and who we would look at and just see them put on their badge like superheroes, right? And go solve these incredible problems in our neighborhood that, if you weren’t from the neighborhood, you probably wouldn’t know it was a problem, and if you weren’t a police officer, you probably wouldn’t have been able to help solve. You know what I mean?

And so I think therein lies the paradox of a lot of our communities. We very desperately need good policing, police officers who are committed to community, who understand community, who don’t show up fearful of our neighbors, and, at the same time, we know that our lives aren’t on the line, as we pray that when we call 911 it’s not Officer Chauvin who shows up.

Before our attention moved toward George Floyd and the protests, it was on the coronavirus. Obviously there have been protests all around the country, and there are concerns that these protests might exacerbate the infection rate in local areas. What have you heard about the potential problems there, and do you have those concerns?

Yeah, obviously we just saw protests around the country during a time in which every public health professional is telling us we should be social distancing and wearing masks and all of these other things. So there’s certainly a very strong concern that this virus, which was disproportionately targeting communities of color before George Floyd was murdered, that this virus could, in the protests and all the other things that have happened since his killing, could result in even more exacerbated outbreak among those same communities.

So yes, we’re very concerned about the possibility, and frankly the likelihood, that the activity over the last couple weeks could result in even further spread … a superspreader type of event that could significantly accelerate the spread of COVID-19, particularly within our communities of color.

Your wife is right in the middle of that, right?

Yes, she’s a midwife. So she’s a health care provider who has patients who are COVID-19-positive, and so our focus on wearing masks and social distancing ourselves and all those types of things just has to remain. And my wife/chief medical adviser here in the house reminds me of that daily.

From the coronavirus response to the protests, the last few months have newly revealed the importance of having good, strong local government, and one thing we’ve talked about internally at Slate is that it kind of feels like mayors are running the country right now, in a way that maybe they haven’t before. Is that something you’ve thought about?

I think we have seen mayors step up and maybe take leadership around the country in ways that they historically haven’t necessarily had to do. And I’ll tell you, I draw an incredible amount of both ideas and strength from those mayors across the country. Many of us are in constant contact. I’m part of a text group of African American mayors in particular.

How many of them?

Name a black mayor of a major city.

I’m guessing Michael Tubbs [of Stockton, California] is on there, Keisha Lance Bottoms [Atlanta].

Yup, yup.

Sylvester Turner [Houston]?

Yup, all of the above. And so, yeah, we’re texting each other ideas. So, for example, early on in the COVID-19 crisis, we in St. Paul suspended water shutoffs to make sure every resident could afford to wash their hands. Purely coincidentally, I made that decision shortly after Mayor Lance Bottoms texted us that she had just done that in Atlanta. And so we’re constantly using this text group to just exchange ideas, and Mayor Lance Bottoms has said publicly that she fashioned a grant program in Atlanta after one that we created here, as emergency assistance for residents and businesses. All of this work is happening in this text group, and we’re exchanging ideas, we’re kind of bouncing things off one another, and, frankly, just checking in with one another. I think my last text I got from Mayor Lance Bottoms was just, “How are you doing?”

What did you tell her?

I don’t know that it was meant for print.

[Laughs]

I told her we’re struggling but we’re making it. Obviously they’ve had a hard road since George Floyd was killed as well. They’ve had folks in Atlanta as well who have fought to create destruction in ways that don’t build something constructive and don’t necessarily help us build the future. We’ve also seen, thankfully, the majority of folks, and I think the sustaining energy is among people who are heartbroken by George Floyd’s killing, who want to just make sure that those officers are held accountable, and are committing themselves to building in a proactive way for the future, in which our children don’t have to deal with this.

Our mutual friend, Myron Medcalf of ESPN, told me to ask you about your running career.

The most important thing you need to know about my running career is that it was a long time ago. No, I went to Florida A&M, and, you know, for the first half of my life, running was something of a religion for me.

What did you run?

One [100-meter dash], two, and four, and I long jumped as well, a bit, but I never did any competitive jumping in college. A couple of state championships in Minnesota and then went down and ran on the relay down in Florida. It was a great experience, it paid for college for me, and I ended up getting more injuries than I planned on in college, and it kind of took the fun out of it a little bit for me.

What do you think of FAMU leaving the MEAC and coming to the SWAC?

We take all comers. We’re just looking forward to showing the SWAC what a band looks like, what a band is.

Oh, man, now don’t start.

I mean, no, those are great schools. I want them to have marching bands like us.

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