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Community relationships, violent crime major themes in St. Louis police chief town hall

From the Read profiles of the St. Louis police chief candidates, and see how they plan to reduce crime series
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Four men address public in St. Louis police chief forum

Ron Spivey of St. Louis and other residents applaud the first candidate for chief of St. Louis police on Tuesday, Dec. 6, 2022, at a forum for all four men vying for the position during a town hall meeting at Vashon High School. 

ST. LOUIS — Community relationships and violent crime were the major themes Tuesday night at a town hall meeting where four finalists for St. Louis police chief answered questions and made pitches for why they should be the city’s next top cop.

St. Louis’ next chief, which the city said it intends to hire before the new year, will inherit a department that police leaders say is in the midst of a staffing crisis, in a city where the crime rate remains stubbornly high and the government is rife with political divides.

“I believe the next selection of our next police chief will be pivotal ... in taking our policing into the 21st century,” St. Louis Mayor Tishaura O. Jones said at the beginning of the town hall, attending by about 150 people including police officers, local activists and elected government officials.

Dr. LJ Punch, a trauma surgeon, advocate for community health and former St. Louis County police commissioner, moderated Tuesday’s event at Vashon High School. Punch said the questions, asked during individual, 30-minute sessions with the candidates, were generated from about 800 responses to an online survey from the mayor’s office.

The four finalists are Larry Boone, a former police chief in Norfolk, Virginia; Robert Tracy, a police chief in Wilmington, Delaware; Melron Kelly, a deputy chief in Columbia, South Carolina; and St. Louis interim police Chief Michael Sack.

Four men address public in St. Louis police chief forum

Robert Tracy, former chief of the Wilmington Police Department and a finalist for police chief in St. Louis, listens to a question by L.J. Punch on Tuesday, Dec. 6, 2022, at a public forum at Vashon High School. Photo by Christian Gooden, cgooden@post-dispatch.com

Tracy, from Delaware, was named police chief in Wilmington in April 2017 amid a surge in gun violence. Earlier this year, the Wilmington City Council narrowly passed a resolution declaring “no confidence” in Tracy’s ability to lead the department because of concerns about a lack of diversity in staffing.

Tracy on Monday announced he is leaving his post in Wilmington regardless of whether he’s hired in St. Louis.

He said Tuesday he was the first chief hired externally at the Wilmington Police Department and touted his department’s work reducing violent crime through focused deterrence and group violence intervention, recruiting diverse officers and building community relationships.

“I know I’m not from here, but I have come into other places and established relationships with all the stakeholders and made sure they had a voice that I listened to,” he said.

Four men address public in St. Louis police chief forum

Larry Boone, chief of the Norfolk Police Department and one of four finalists for the chief of the St. Louis Police Department job, answers a question on Tuesday, Dec. 6, 2022, as L.J. Punch listens and moderates a public forum at Vashon High School. Photo by Christian Gooden, cgooden@post-dispatch.com

Boone, from Virginia, joined the Norfolk Police Department in 1989 and was named chief in the city of about 235,000 in December 2016.

He gained national attention in the summer of 2020 when he joined a local protest against police brutality following the death of George Floyd in Minnesota. He backed police reform proposals, including the creation of a civilian oversight board and the reallocation of some of his department’s budget toward helping people struggling with mental health issues, drug abuse and homelessness.

He said Tuesday that after having been chief in Norfolk, which he said is similar in many ways to St. Louis, he had the skill set to address the city’s violent crime issues and touted a 25% crime reduction after his five years as chief in Virginia.

“Folks, if you are looking for a savior or a miracle, police cannot do this alone. They just can’t do it alone,” he said.

Four men address public in St. Louis police chief forum

Michael Sack, interim chief of the St. Louis Police Department and one of four finalists for the chief of the St. Louis Police Department job, listens to a question by L.J. Punch on Tuesday, Dec. 6, 2022, at a public forum of candidates at Vashon High School. Photo by Christian Gooden, cgooden@post-dispatch.com

Sack, the interim chief, has been with the department for 26 years and has worked in District Four, the Central Patrol Detective Bureau and the Special Services Division.

He has served as the department’s interim chief since former Chief John Hayden retired June 18.

Sack said addressing violent crime is a joint effort with the community and that it’s crucial to leverage technology and data to determine where to put officers in the city to best reduce crime.

“Violent crime is down 5% and we can say that’s a great thing, but the reality is we have people out here who have been victimized. We have a lot of work to do. But it’s not just police — it’s a collective effort,” Sack said.

Four men address public in St. Louis police chief forum

Melron Kelly, deputy chief of the Columbia, S.C. Police Department and one of four finalists for the chief of the St. Louis Police Department job, listens to a question by L.J. Punch on Tuesday, Dec. 6, 2022, at a public forum of candidates at Vashon High School.

Kelly, a native of South Carolina, has been in law enforcement for 23 years and is the youngest deputy chief in Columbia Police Department history.

The last of the candidates to take the stage, Kelly appeared virtually on Zoom.

He said reducing violent crime includes needing to identify the core group of people who commit crimes, hold them accountable and “remove them from society.”

“Again, it’s not a popular decision, but we have to do that to keep families safe,” he said.

He also cited community programs that intervene when youths experience violence and data that helps officers understand where and when crimes occur.

The four finalists were chosen from a pool of 42 applicants, said Sonya Gray, the city’s director of personnel. From there, Gray said her office determines which candidates are qualified for the position.

Her office sent the qualified applications to the public safety director, Dan Isom, on Friday. He chose the final candidates who spoke at Tuesday’s town hall. Gray’s department did not release how many candidates were sent to Isom.

Isom will select the new hire with the mayor’s input.

Tuesday’s finalists are the product of a second search for city police chief. Jones said in January the first search in 2021 needed to ”start over,” citing the need for a more transparent process and expressing dissatisfaction with having just two internal finalists for the job.

Spokespeople for all three St. Louis police unions said the selection process for the next chief has been opaque, leaving residents and officers in the dark until Monday afternoon, when the finalists were announced. The town hall was first announced Nov. 22.

In addition to the pre-submitted questions, attendees of Tuesday’s town hall were urged to submit comment cards.

St. Louis Police Chief Candidates panel

Finalists announced Monday, Dec. 5, 2022 for the job of St. Louis police chief include, from left: Chief Larry Boone, Norfolk, VA; Deputy Chief Melron Kelly, Columbia, SC; Interim Police Commissioner Michael Sack, St. Louis, MO; and Chief Robert Tracy, Wilmington, DE.

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