ST. LOUIS — The mayor’s office on Monday released the names of the four finalists vying to become St. Louis’ next top cop, all of whom will attend a public town hall Tuesday night as part of the city’s vetting process.
The finalists are Larry Boone, a former police chief in Norfolk, Virginia; Robert Tracy, a police chief in Wilmington, Delaware; Melron Kelly, a deputy chief from Columbia, South Carolina; and St. Louis interim police Chief Michael Sack.
They will answer community questions at 6 p.m. Tuesday at Vashon High School, 3035 Cass Avenue. Residents can submit discussion topics on the city’s website, and a moderator will ask questions based on that feedback, city spokesman Nick Desideri said. Attendees will also be able to submit comment cards Tuesday night.
Monday’s finalists are the product of a second search for city police chief. St. Louis Mayor Tishaura O. 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.
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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 was serving as commander of the Bureau of Professional Standards in 2018 when St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kimberly M. Gardner claimed Sack thanked her for creating a list of 28 officers she would stop accepting cases from and prohibit from serving as witnesses because of “credibility” issues. Hayden denied that Sack had any role in the creation of the list.
The St. Louis Police Officers Association, which represents about 1,000 police officers in the city, was critical of Sack’s involvement.
Tracy, from Delaware, has 30 years of law enforcement experience and was named police chief in Wilmington in April 2017 amid a surge in gun violence in the city of 70,000 residents. He promised to help the department fight back with data-driven strategies he’d seen work at previous jobs.
Wilmington soon experienced a 60% reduction in shootings, and Tracy was recognized at the president’s State of the Union.
But gun violence spiked again in 2020 during a nationwide surge. And 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.
Boone, from Virginia, joined the Norfolk Police Department in 1989 after growing up in what he described as a poor, Black neighborhood of New Jersey where he was regularly harassed by police and had run-ins with the law. He was named head of the department for 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 subsequently 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.
Boone retired from the department this past spring and told a local TV station he had become frustrated by his inability to reduce gun violence as police chief. He is also in the running for the top police job in Cincinnati.
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. Columbia is home to about 137,000 residents.
He has been photographed with Bruce Franks, an activist and community organizer who moved into the public eye in 2014 during protests in Ferguson. The men have exchanged tweets, too.
Kelly has written columns and spoken at police conferences emphasizing his support of community policing practices, specifically involving young people, to address violence and help police build trust with communities.
Spokespeople for all three St. Louis police unions said recently that the selection process for the next chief has been opaque, leaving residents and officers in the dark until Monday afternoon. The town hall, set for Tuesday evening, was first announced Nov. 22.
“It’s unfortunate that the citizens won’t be able to address the candidates directly because someone else is going to get to pick the questions,” said Sgt. Mickey Owens, president of the St. Louis Police Leadership Organization, which represents the interests of supervisors and commanders in the department.
The city initially said three candidates would participate in Tuesday’s forum but expanded that to four on Monday.
“I thought it would be more internal heavy than external heavy just because coming into a new town is a different animal,” said Jay Schroeder, SLPOA president. “It’s going to take a while for a new chief to figure out the regional dynamic — because, you know, St. Louis really is a regional police department.”
Three city police majors applied for the position and were passed over, said Sgt. Donnell Walters, president of the Ethical Society of Police. All three are members of ESOP, which advocates for racial equality in policing.
Walters said Monday evening he’d received multiple calls and emails from residents asking him how external candidates were chosen over the internal applicants.
“Citizens are questioning the process because the process has not been made public,” he said. “These things are bad for the city. I think we are all feeling betrayed, misled and not appreciated as a city to say that we are going to be a part of the process — I don’t see how we are part of the process.”
Schroeder agreed that the process hasn’t been open like the city said it would be.
“I think that’s the most unusual part about the whole thing — nobody really knows,” he said. “We would want a little time to look at the candidates and who they are and where they come from and what their credentials are. When Hayden was picked, we had a pretty good idea who would be there at the town hall.”
The city held a similar town hall in 2017, involving six finalists, before hiring Hayden.
Hayden made $153,000 as police chief in 2021, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch public pay database.
Jones in January emphasized the need for a nationwide search and more diversity in the candidate pool.
Sack and Tracy are white men; Kelly and Boone are Black men.
Austin Huguelet and Taylor Tiamoyo Harris contributed to this report.