Hand in Hand Productions

Saint Paul Police
Oral History Project Background & History

Oral Historian Kate Cavett of HAND in HAND Productions began the Saint Paul Police Oral History Project by interviewing retired Deputy Chief James S. Griffin in 1998. He was chosen as the first interview because he was an outstanding storyteller, in addition to being the first Black American to achieve high rank in the department. Because of this project, his voice is preserved in an audio kiosk in the lobby of the new police headquarters named for him.

The City of Saint Paul’s police department was formally organized in 1854 and has a rich history worthy of preservation. Saint Paul’s history includes the department’s corruption in the 1930s when officers were paid off to allow criminals like John Dillinger and the Barker-Karpis gang to operate openly within the city.

It also has a proud and innovative past as seen when it appointed James Burrell as the first Black officer in 1892, twenty years before the first Black officer was appointed in New York City. Or, after the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago, when the public mood throughout the nation was negative toward police, many departments only responded by being angry in return. In Saint Paul, officers initiated programs to reshape community relations and were creative in addressing the racial unrest and tensions in public housing. Throughout these oral history interviews, line officers report that if you are going to be a Saint Paul police officer you are going to be held to a higher standard of skill proficiency, innovation, and responsibility for solving problems, as well as humanity toward people.

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This commitment might be best seen when in 1994, two Saint Paul officers were gunned down within hours of each other. After a daylong search, the fugitive was captured alive. Across the nation those familiar with police procedures marveled that police officers would capture the murderer of their own men alive. Retired Police Chief William Finney describes the uniqueness of the department in his oral history:

“We had two police officers murdered in one day, 1994, and the first police officer was shot in the back, murdered in cold blood, and a search started for the killer. And, the killer was able to shoot and kill another Saint Paul police officer, and I was just about positive this guy is not going to come in but feet first, he’s going to be killed out there.

“I had three hundred, four hundred cops out there madder than hell and hurt. And, the hurt is worse than being mad. But I had some professional leaders out there who I knew were very, very capable, and they respond to their training first and let their emotions come second. That’s the culture of the Saint Paul Police Department: that people do things because they’re trained the proper way.

“I was never prouder of my Saint Paul Police Department than when my SWAT team finally located where the shooter was. The police officers were heavily armed with machine guns and other weapons, and they gave this guy the opportunity to surrender. Had him at gunpoint, they could have just shot him down, like he shot down those two police officers in the back. He still had a holster out, so they thought he had a gun, and he was under some bushes. They peeled the bushes away and the man would not expose his hands, he kept his hands under his body. In his mind, I’m sure he thought if I move my hands they’re going to shoot me. And, a cop’s mind is, if I don’t see what you got in your hands, I’m going to kill you.

“But they didn’t do it. He would not pull his hands out, they did not shoot him, and they were able to take him into custody with not so much as a bruise on him. They didn’t beat him up, they didn’t shoot him. I know the cops who were in that SWAT team, and I know how angry they were. They were trembling angry, but their professionalism took over. I was never so proud of that Police Department, as that day, and those officers.”

Minnesota’s capital city of 267,000 residents only has 570 sworn officers who have a strong relationship with the residents of their ethnically diverse urban neighborhoods. As this ongoing project continues, retired and senior officers will share their stories of the history and the culture of this unique large-city department with a small-town attitude.

“. . . Excellence, Ethics, Empathy, and Education!”
—Chief John M. Harrington

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