St. Louis Police Chief Robert Tracy on bringing an outsider’s perspective to the department
When he took command of the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department on Jan. 9, Robert Tracy became the first chief from outside the department’s ranks.
He’s spent much of the first seven weeks on the job meeting with community and political leaders and getting certified as a police officer in Missouri.
“I learned what a great city St. Louis is. There’s so many people who want to see this place be safe,” Tracy said in an interview with St. Louis Public Radio. “Everybody has hope that we can get this into a better place than where we've been in the past.”
Tracy praised the job being done by the city’s officers. “I'm just bringing in some different strategies, and building off the things that we have in place,” he said. “And hopefully, we can get to where we need to be.”
Tracy is used to being an outsider. When he was hired in Wilmington in 2017, he was the first person to lead that department who had not progressed through its ranks.
“Just like this, people were a little skeptical,” he said. “But over time, we were able to get to where we need to be, and we left it and continue to have it in a better place.”
The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Rachel Lippmann: What has emerged from conversations with community and political stakeholders as the top issue for you to address?
Robert Tracy: Obviously, in any city it’s going to be violent crime and gun violence. In most of the cities that I’ve worked in, close to 90% of homicides are committed with a firearm, and St. Louis is no different. So you have to look at, what are we doing with people who are carrying guns?
Juveniles can carry guns in this state. Missouri has open carry and concealed carry. So if people commit crimes when they’re carrying firearms, you have to make sure that we’re following up with good cases and making sure there are consequences.
Obviously, we want to see how we can prevent a shooting or a murder, and if one does happen, do a really good investigation to bring closure to the families.
Lippmann: As you referenced, Missouri lawmakers are deeply hostile to any restrictions on firearms. What is your plan to deal with violent crime in that universe?
Tracy: I think these are unintended consequences. Nobody puts laws in place thinking that, hey, this is going to cause more problems. But it is a reality, especially in urban cities.
So we’ve got to make it a priority that if someone picks up a gun, and they do violent things with it, we have to make sure they are held responsible. And then we need to find out what’s going on in their lives, whether it’s through intervention, prevention, or re-entry, and try to do things to help them out of crime.
If they want to continue to cause problems in our community, there has to be consequences. We have to protect other people, and protect them from themselves, because usually a person that is in a life of crime is going to be a victim of crime as well.
Lippmann: This strategy of prevention, intervention, enforcement and re-entry will sound familiar to observers of the St. Louis police department – it’s been called a number of different things over the years, but the basic tenants aren’t new. What are you continuing that the department is currently doing? And what do you plan to add as part of that strategy you just outlined?
Tracy: Well, people have heard that before. But you know, this is the first time that you have an outsider that's coming in here.
I’m coming as a consultant and a practitioner who’s had success with these methods elsewhere. You’re getting a person that knows it, consulted on it and actually implemented it, and the responsibility to make sure it gets executed. So I think there's a difference when you say we've heard this all before.
Lippmann: You’ve mentioned consulting. How will the recommendations in the Teneo report shape your strategy?
Tracy: I draw off all reports. It actually helps me to expedite some of the things that I need to look at. But since I’m here, and I’m learning the culture, I’ll take what I think will work here, and then I’ll also put my own stamp on it.
Lippmann: What are some changes that you’ve made in the month and a half you’ve been here that you hope will continue to gain traction?
Tracy: We’re getting out of the pandemic era of doing everything by Zoom, getting everyone in the same room, making sure that we’re breaking down the silos. Not that, that hasn’t happened, but it’s a more formal setting, being in the same room.
We’re looking at the way we’ve done promotions. There’s a lawsuit because we haven’t had promotions for sergeant and lieutenant for a while, so I’m looking at it with fresh eyes to see if we can get it moving.
I’ve been pulled in somewhat with the contract talks. I can’t talk about that, because we’re in negotiations, but it's very important for me to be part of it. There's a lot of things that I might see that's going to help the organization. Hopefully we can get that done soon.
We have a new police academy director, and he has a lot of good ideas to make sure that our training is top notch, so we can bring in other departments to train here instead of sending our officers elsewhere. I’ve already talked to the Department of Personnel about how we can work together and take more ownership in recruiting.
I've met with all community groups. I've met with the clergy, I've met with all elected officials. I'm getting out having these conversations like I'm having with you about what my expectations are, what my visions are, and then keep continually updating everyone.
Lippmann: What will be your philosophy on sharing information about officer misconduct?
Tracy: As police chief, I’m responsible for the behavior of my police officers. And I want to make sure there’s a thorough investigation of any type of behavior to make sure that we continue to build trust in our police officers.
What we can release and when we can release it? We’ve got to be very careful that as we're doing the investigation, we're not compromising the investigation. People want information too quickly. Sometimes we have to say: ‘You’ve got to trust us. Let's see what the outcome is.’ And a lot of times a thorough investigation will clear an officer as well from any type of wrongdoing. So I want to go both ways on this.
Lippmann: What lessons around transparency did you learn from your time in Chicago with the Laquan McDonald shooting that you brought to Wilmington, and will now bring to St. Louis?
(Tracy was never directly implicated in the scandal but was an ally of Gerry McCarthy, the superintendent of the Chicago Police Department at the time. Tracy resigned after McCarthy was fired but told the Wilmington News-Journal that it was his choice.)
Tracy: Let's put it this way, there was a lot of things that went on there. There was a video that the family was paid money not to release — that had nothing to do with the police department, that had to do with the administration. Then it came out a year later, and people saw it, and the officer was criminally charged.
What did I learn from it? Sometimes things don't move as fast as people would like, because there is a due process.
Lippmann: You’ll eventually be working for a new public safety director. What challenges and opportunities does that present?
Tracy: A public safety director is a support role that works on not just policing, also with the fire department and six or seven other units like building inspection.
It’s like having a deputy mayor. We’ll support each other.
I’m a professional person. Whoever comes in, we’ll work well together.
Lippmann: I know you're obviously a Yankees fan as a native of the Bronx, but is there room for the St. Louis Cardinals to become your National League team?
Tracy: Well, I'll tell you if they're not playing the Yankees, yes. But if we get to the World Series, wouldn't that be great for everyone? That'd be a heck of a time. I’d have to root for the Yankees then.
And I think the St. Louis Cardinals will take that saying, ‘Hey, Chief, you know, you're rooting for us all year.’