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St. Louis names new police chief: Robert Tracy of Delaware

Chief Robert Tracy, of Wilmington, Del., speaks after being announced as the next Chief of Police for the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department on Wednesday at City Hall.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Chief Robert Tracy, of Wilmington, Delaware, speaks after being announced as the new chief of the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department on Wednesday at City Hall.

Updated at 1:10 p.m. Dec. 14 with comments from Tracy, Jones and police union officials

For the first time in its 214-year history, the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department has a chief from outside its ranks.

Mayor Tishaura Jones announced Wednesday that Robert Tracy, chief of the Wilmington, Delaware, police department, will take command of the SLMPD on Jan 9.

“Chief Tracy is dedicated to being a visible, accessible chief to the communities that he and his officers served,” Jones said. “He has a proven track record of reducing violent crime. He’s done so in multiple cities, and I believe he can do it here.”

Tracy, a native of the Bronx, started his career as a patrol officer with the New York City Police Department in 1984, eventually rising to the rank of captain. He retired from the NYPD after 23 years and worked in private security but returned to policing in 2011 as a commander in Chicago. He resigned from the Chicago Police Department in 2016 and was named chief in Wilmington in 2017.

While in Delaware, Tracy oversaw a 27% drop in crime overall, including a 50% reduction in shootings. He said he wanted to leave Wilmington while things were going well, rather than under duress.

“There’s a lot of places I could have applied to, and this was the only place I did,” Tracy said. “I saw how much hope was here.”

Adam Schultz
White House
Chief Robert Tracy, of Wilmington, Delaware, on President Joe Biden's left, participates in a meeting on gun violence and crime prevention on July 12, 2021, in the Roosevelt Room of the White House.

Tracy’s appointment as chief in Wilmington was the first time that department had hired an outsider in its more than 250-year history. He said he plans to learn about St. Louis by visiting all of its 79 neighborhoods.

“I look forward to getting to know the citizens of this great city. And I know together, we will do great things,” he said.

Jones urged the city’s residents to give Tracy a chance.

“We all know that St. Louis can be a bit unique when it comes to new people,” she said. “But we can and we should learn from our peers, taking what works in other places and bringing that experience here.”

Board of Aldermen President Megan Green said in a statement that Tracy had her “full support.”

“I ask him to apply his experience in service of our citizens — to improve the people’s trust with city institutions and to keep our neighborhoods safe.”

Green and Jones also both praised Interim Police Chief Michael Sack, who was in command of the department on Oct. 24, the day a former student shot and killed two people at the building that houses Central Visual and Performing Arts and Collegiate School of Medicine and Bioscience high schools. Seven others were injured,

Joe Steiger, business manager for the St. Louis Police Officers Association, said officers were excited to have stability in the chief’s office.

“It’s nice to know that it’s settled now, and we’re looking forward to working with him,” he said.

Steiger said he was especially heartened to hear Tracy address the issue of officer morale.

The Ethical Society of Police, which advocates for officers of color in the department, said in a statement that it would work with Tracy toward making the SLMPD “equitable and fair for our officers and develop better community policing for all.”

"We will hold him to high standards as we have previous chiefs and do everything we can to work together and support progress,” the statement said.

Tracy was one of four finalists selected with the help of the Boulware Group, a Chicago-based consulting firm. Sack was the lone internal candidate. Another finalist — Melron Kelly, deputy chief in Columbia, South Carolina — dropped out shortly after a community forum last week. Larry Boone, chief of the Norfolk, Virginia, department, was the remaining finalist.

Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Chief Robert Tracy of Wilmington, Delaware, speaks to Dr. LJ Punch on Dec. 6 during a town hall with candidates vying to be St. Louis' chief of police at Vashon High School.

Meet the new boss

In Chicago. Tracy was an ally of Gerry McCarthy, a former police superintendent who was fired after video of the shooting of Laquan McDonald became public.

Tracy resigned after McCarthy was fired and told the Wilmington News-Journal that it was his choice.

"I left just at a time that City Hall looked like they wanted to make changes," he told the paper after he was hired. "I think it was probably time for a change. They were going in a new direction, and I figured, 'let them go in that direction.'"

Earlier this year, the Wilmington City Council took a symbolic “no confidence” vote on Tracy, with the council’s president complaining about a lack of diversity and transparency in the department.

Tracy acknowledged the vote but said that it happened 11 months ago and that the tension had since been resolved.

“We actually sat down and talked about these things to make sure that we were doing the things that our community expected. The community in return, also supported what we were doing,” he said.

Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Martha Sands, 62, of the Ville, takes notes on Dec. 6 during a town hall with candidates vying to be the next chief of police for the City of St. Louis at Vashon High School in the Jeff-Vander-Lou neighborhood. “I’m looking for someone who exhibits integrity. Someone who understands what’s needed in a community — and who is willing to go out there and see what is needed —so his job can make a difference,” she said. “A police chief needs to understand the demographics of the neighborhoods they serve.”

The search process

The search that led to Tracy’s hiring was just the second in the department’s history to include external candidates, and it was filled with stops and starts.

Jones and former personnel director Richard Frank had clashed over the way the process would be conducted, and the mayor was also dissatisfied with the first set of finalists, both of whom were reportedly members of the St. Louis department. When Frank left the post in December 2021, Jones successfully pushed the Civil Service Commission to restart the search and later signed a contract with the outside firm.

Jones had promised transparency throughout the search. But while members of the public were allowed to provide general input on what they wanted to see in a new chief, a forum at Vashon High School on Dec. 6 was the only opportunity residents had to hear from the candidates and ask questions.

Sgt. Donnell Walters, president of the Ethical Society of Police, told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that citizens had contacted him multiple times with questions about the search.

Steiger said he also wished the search had been more transparent. And he said that while the need for a fresh perspective was understandable, he worried that having an outsider would limit opportunities for upward mobility in the department and possibly drive away experienced officers.

Rachel is the justice correspondent at St. Louis Public Radio.

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