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New St. Louis police chief to be named Wednesday

 (L-R): Interim Police Chief Michael Sack, Former Chief Larry Boone (Norfolk, Va.), Chief Robert Tracy (Wilmington, Del.) and Deputy Chief Melron Kelly (Columbia, S.C.) are finalists for St. Louis' next permanent police chief.
Mayor Tishaura Jones' Office
(L-R): Interim Police Chief Michael Sack, Former Chief Larry Boone (Norfolk, Va.), Chief Robert Tracy (Wilmington, Del.) and Deputy Chief Melron Kelly (Columbia, S.C.) were the finalists for St. Louis' next permanent police chief.

Updated Dec. 13 with the chief selection coming Wednesday

St. Louis Mayor Tishaura Jones will announce the city’s new police chief on Wednesday.

Jones’ office will hold a press conference to unveil the new leader of the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department at 11 a.m. This comes after Jones’ office held a town hall meeting where the finalists shared their vision for the agency.

The finalists appear to be former Norfolk, Virginia, Police Chief Larry Boone and Wilmington, Delaware, Police Chief Robert Tracy.

KSDK is reporting that St. Louis Interim Police Chief Michael Sack did not get selected. And Columbia, South Carolina, Deputy Chief Melron Kelly dropped out of the police search process earlier this week.

Original story from Dec. 6

St. Louis residents got an up-close look at the four finalists to be the next leader of the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department.

The city held its only town hall meeting on Tuesday night at Vashon High School, where the contenders to be chief made their pitches to the public. Three of the candidates, Michael Sack, Robert Tracy and Larry Boone, appeared in person. A fourth, Melron Kelly, spoke via Zoom.

Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Sara Baker, 33, deputy chief of staff to Mayor Tishaura Jones, leans in while listening to candidates vying to be the City of St. Louis’ next police chief on Tuesday during a town hall at Vashon High School in the Jeff-Vander-Lou neighborhood.

Before the candidates talked about their plans, St. Louis Mayor Tishaura Jones detailed to the crowd the task ahead for the next chief of police. That included establishing trust with St. Louis residents and stemming a perennial wave of violence that’s bedeviled city policymakers for years.

“How can we make St. Louis a safer place for all of us — especially our youth and young people?” Jones asked. “They should be able to grow up secure and without fear of losing their lives to gun violence.”

Interim Public Safety Director Dan Isom and Jones have said they hope to have a chief selected before the end of the year.

Here’s what the candidates for chief had to say during the two-hour town hall meeting.

Interim St. Louis Police Chief Michael Sack

Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Michael Sack, left, interim St. Louis chief of police, speaks to Dr. LJ Punch on why he wants the job permanently on Tuesday during a town hall.

Sack is the only candidate who currently works for the St. Louis Police Department.

Listen to Michael Sack discuss his police chief candidacy
St. Louis interim Police Chief Michael Sack talks with Dr. L.J. Punch during a town hall forum at Vashon High School.

“When I greet the recruits when they come into the academy that first day, and I ask, ‘Why is it that you want to be a police officer?’” Sack said, “almost everybody says: ‘I want to serve others. I want to help people.’”

Reducing violence

During his time as interim chief, Sack was thrust into the spotlight after a shooting at Central Visual and Performing Arts High School. St. Louis police responded quickly to kill the shooter before he could hurt more people. He said that episode showed that the state needs more stringent laws around guns, particularly when it comes to background checks.

“I think in order to address violence in the city of St. Louis, we’ve got to address the gun laws,” Sack said. “We’ve got to find a way to engage families to be more active and proactive with kids in their households to be respectful of firearms.”

Dispatching officers in an equitable and compassionate manner

While noting that technology is available to make it easier to solve crimes, Sack said the essence of policing is for officers to engage with people who are sometimes going through one of, if not the worst, days of their lives.

Sack also said, “We can't put the same number of police officers into every district and then say that we're going to be able to police fairly across the entire city.

“The way I've looked at it is that we need additional police officer resources in those neighborhoods where there is more violence, because response to violence requires more officers to secure the scene, conduct the interviews and conduct an investigation.”

Building community trust

Sack noted he spent time before his appointment as interim chief investigating the conduct of other officers. He said he has a track record of making sure officers who engage in wrongdoing are held accountable.

“Accountability is one of the most important parts of representing a police department,” Sack said. “It's the expectation of the community that we do the right thing.”

Former Norfolk, Virginia, Police Chief Larry Boone

Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Larry Boone, former police chief of Norfolk, Virginia, speaks to the audience on Tuesday during a town hall with candidates for the job of police chief.

Until retiring earlier this year, Boone served as the chief for the Norfolk Police Department in Virginia. He took on that post in late 2016 after working at the department since 1989.

Listen to Larry Boone's pitch to become St. Louis' police chief
Former Norfolk Police Department Chief Larry Boone discusses his candidacy at Vashon High School.

He noted that he was the first police officer in the history of the Norfolk Police Department to serve in all ranks.

“I think I bring a certain set of skill sets to this environment,” Boone said. “I'm an urban city chief. I understand urban challenges.”

Stemming violent crime

Boone said he was successful at reducing the number of murders in Norfolk during the first few years as chief. He said he set up a number of programs aimed at engaging youth and steering them away from violence.

“I think you'll find me very personable. I think you'll find me very engaged,” Boone said. “I think you'll find me not in a building somewhere writing reports. I think you'll find me right in your face, talking to you about hard stuff. Believe me, I know you got hard stuff.”

Getting public policymakers engaged in crime fighting

One tangible way that Boone said he was able to make a dent in violent crime was through an initiative that traced guns used in crimes.

When it was disclosed to the public that almost all of the guns were purchased legally, Boone said he was able to help get a law passed that limited individual gun purchasers to one a month.

“If that gun is lost or stolen, you have to report it in 24 hours. That changes behavior.”

Fostering accountability within a police department

Boone said he would emphatically back police officers who uphold the constitution and do their jobs effectively. But he also said that if an officer treats people poorly, he will “hold them accountable.”

“I spent 10 years of my professional career investigating misconduct of officers,” Boone said. “I believe there are two types of mistakes: mistakes of the heart and mistakes of the head. Those mistakes of the heart? I will terminate you. I have no problem doing it.”

Columbia, South Carolina, Deputy Police Chief Melron Kelly

Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Melron Kelly, deputy chief of the Columbia, South Carolina, police department, speaks to the audience via video conference on Tuesday during a town hall with candidates vying to be the next chief in St. Louis.

Kelly is currently the second-in-command at the Columbia, South Carolina, Police Department. He’s served with the department for the past 23 years.

Listen to Melron Kelly's police chief pitch at Vashon High School
Columbia Police Department deputy chief Melron Kelly discusses his candidacy at Vashon High School.

As deputy chief, he is the commander of the Operations, Special Services and Administrative bureaus. Those are in charge of recruiting, patrol and regional divisions, criminal investigations, marketing and media relations.

“I visited St. Louis in July, and I was just impressed with the city,” Kelly said. “The hospitality reminds me of the southern hospitality that we have here. And I see the potential for change and growth. And I want to be a part of that.”

Stemming violence

Kelly said that one of the keys to getting a handle on violence in a place like St. Louis is identifying people who are responsible for most of the crimes and making sure they’re held accountable for their actions.

“It’s not a popular decision. It's not something that I take pride in saying. But we do know that there are individuals in our communities that commit the most heinous, violent acts over and over. Those people unfortunately, have to be incarcerated or should be incarcerated for a period of time, in order to bring justice to society and to their victims.”

Empowering young people to stop crime

Kelly pointed to a program in Columbia in which young people were part of the conversation on how they were being treated by police.

“A lot of times, we as adults are in the rooms discussing how we're going to handle or address acts of juvenile violence,” Kelly said. “But how can we best do that if they're not in the room, and they don't have a voice as well? So we initiated that program, and we meet with high school students bimonthly, and we give them a voice in how they're being policed.”

Building trust with the community

Kelly took part in a program in Columbia in which he lived in a neighborhood that was notorious for crime. He said that gave him a more tangible connection with residents.

“Sometimes citizens believe that officers are whisked off into this magical land when they're not working,” Kelly said. “But they saw me when I was working, they saw me at the grocery store. They saw me out for a jog, and just humanizing the profession made things a lot better.”

Wilmington, Delaware, Police Chief Robert Tracy

Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Wilmington, Delaware, Police Chief Robert Tracy, left, speaks to the audience on why he wants to become the next chief of St. Louis on Tuesday during a town hall.

Since 2017, Tracy has served as chief for the Wilmington Police Department in Delaware. His career includes extensive experience working in the Chicago and New York police departments.

Listen to Robert Tracy's police chief pitch at Vashon High School

He noted he was the first outside chief to be hired in the city’s history.

“I would love to do this challenge in St. Louis, where we certainly have the violence … that you see each and every day that we had in Wilmington,” Tracy said.

Stemming violent crime

Before he arrived as chief, Newsweek ran an article that called Wilmington “Murdertown, USA.” But he said his department was able to reduce violence crime, primarily by establishing trust with residents.

“Because you're building with the community trust, we have clearance rates close to 70% on a homicide,” Tracy said.

Building diversity within the police department

Tracy noted that nearly 80% of the officers in his last recruiting class were African American. He also said he had success in retaining officers, where other departments have struggled.

“The morale is good,” Tracy said. “And these are the things and challenges that I know we have here that we'd like to replicate into the same type of things that we did in Wilmington.”

Improving community trust

Since he wasn’t an internal hire, Tracy noted that he was initially perceived with a lot of skepticism when he became chief.

But now that he’s applying for the top job in St. Louis, Tracy said he’s received messages from scores of people — including members of the religious community — begging him not to depart.

“And I told [the citizens of Wilmington], give me a chance,” Tracy said. “And if I'm not doing what needs to be done in this city to make it a safer community … tell me what I'm missing.”

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.

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