January 7, 2023

Can Robert Tracy, who achieved large crime reductions in Wilmington, do the same in St. Louis?


PERF members,

As the first outside chief to be hired in two of America’s most dangerous cities—Wilmington, Delaware, in 2017 and now in St. Louis, where he will assume his new position on Monday—Robert Tracy understands what it’s like to be an outsider.

Prior to his taking over in Wilmington, the city earned the label “Murder Town USA” from Newsweek. It ranked third for violence among 450 cities of comparable size in 2013, and its violent-crime rate was more than four times the national average.

A veteran of the NYPD and the Chicago Police Department, Tracy looked to replicate the strategies he had implemented as chief of crime control strategies in Chicago, which experienced its lowest overall crime rate since 1972 during his tenure. He faced an immense challenge when arriving in Wilmington, which had a record number of homicides in 2017.

That year Tracy implemented CompStat into the department’s daily operations and began strengthening the department’s ties with the community. Violent crime fell steadily during Tracy’s tenure and is now  35 percent below the 2016 level. The decline in Wilmington’s violent crime numbers is particularly noteworthy in that continued after 2020, when most US cities saw their violent crime rates rise dramatically.


Now Tracy is taking over in St. Louis, which ranks among the most dangerous cities in America and regularly records the highest homicide rate of any U.S. city. On the eve of his start, we asked Bob about his experience as an outsider, how he achieved his success, and what he thinks about this new challenge as St. Louis’ first outside chief.

Chuck Wexler: Bob Tracy, you’ve got a great story. Where did you grow up?

Chief Robert Tracy: I was born and raised in the early part of my life in the Bronx. My father was a first-grade homicide detective with the NYPD, served almost 37 years, so policing has been in my blood. Shockingly, my mother was a nurse. You put those two civil servants together and that kind of defines me as a person.

Wexler: Did you always want to be a cop? Did your dad inspire you?

Tracy: Yes, he used to take me to work with him. Back in that day, even if you were on vacation, you still had to pick up your check physically, so he used to take me to the police station with him. That was one of the biggest treats for me as a son, to be with my father and be introduced to the squad detectives and desk officers. I was surrounded by men and women in law enforcement and listened to the stories of how they helped people. As a homicide detective, the empathy my father showed to the victims’ families and bringing them closure really left an impression on me.

Wexler: You joined the NYPD in 1984 and spent more than 20 years there. What did you take away from your experience?

Tracy: I was fortunate enough to come on while my father was still there. He didn’t retire until 1989. It was a very difficult time because of the crack epidemic. I made sergeant at a very young age and went from the Bronx to Harlem for my first six months, and I continued for seven years in Washington Heights. Washington Heights was a small geographic area, but we had about 100 murders and 500 shootings a year. I really cut my teeth and learned how to deal with violent crime and then be a part of a success story when Bill Bratton came in with the CompStat system.

After 10 years of reactive policing, we adopted a plan of working with the communities and the CompStat system. I embraced it and was part of the transformation. That place went from 100 murders a year to less than 10 in a 20-year span. When I come into a place and people tell me that nothing can be done, I’m going to challenge that because I’ve been a part of a team that got something done.

Wexler: You left the NYPD and went to Chicago from 2011 to 2016. You were really running CompStat there. Is that fair to say?

Tracy: Yes, I was asked to come in and transform their accountability system into a CompStat system. We had tremendous results: a 50-year low in murders and shootings and a 40-year low in overall Part 1 crimes. That didn’t happen by accident. It was a system that we put in place and that the men and women of the Chicago Police Department embraced. It took us about two years to teach the system internally to get external success. When it took off, it did really well.

Wexler: While you were working in Chicago, the chief of police position in Wilmington, Delaware, became available. You’d been in New York and Chicago. Why Wilmington in 2017?

Tracy: I’ve been in places with challenges. Newsweek had called Wilmington “Murder Town USA” in 2014 but it was a place with really good police officers, a community that wanted to see things change, and a new mayor who was looking for an outside police chief for the first time in the city’s history. I did my homework on the city and wanted to come into a place to see if we could do the same type of things we did in New York and Chicago.

Everyone in the department had come up together. The culture wasn’t malicious, but they were training to the culture rather than best practices. I believe the mayor made the right decision; if it wasn’t me, it had to be someone else from outside to look at this culture with fresh eyes. I had to make sure that the people who wanted change were brought along and the ones who didn’t want change were held accountable. A lot of them left, but that gave room for the department to start bringing people up who were looking for a change.

Wexler: Full disclosure: the City of Wilmington hired PERF to help in the selection process, and PERF Executive Search head Charlotte Lansinger reached out to you about the position. What do you think she saw in you that made you a good fit as the first outside chief in the history of the department?

Tracy: Charlotte has done a lot of searches throughout the United States and does an incredible job. I want to thank Charlotte and you for your professionalism in helping manage this because Wilmington had never been through this before. It was a lot of work, especially on Charlotte’s part. I think she saw in me someone that was data driven, someone with a proven track record coming from places that had experienced success with outside influences coming in and actually adjusting the culture.

Wexler: As you reflect on your experiences in Wilmington, a year-end CompStat report shows continued decreases in overall crime. In 2022 Wilmington recorded the fewest murders in 15 years and the second-fewest shootings in 17 years. Outsiders don’t always succeed. Can you give us some examples of steps you took to turn things around in one of the most violent cities in the country?

Tracy: As the chief of police, I made sure that I was visible at every shooting scene. In Chicago and New York, we had developed a post-shooting retaliatory plan. These individuals who shoot each other, it’s not random. They know each other, and we know who they are. When the first shooting happens, we identify who the victim is, who their associates are, and who they’re in conflict with. They’re going to retaliate, so I have to get deployment immediately. There needs to be a sense of urgency in doing things, and quite frankly there hadn’t been one.

Wexler: This is turning the culture upside down. You’re the police chief, you’re responding in the middle of the night, and therefore you’re expecting other people to respond. What kind of reaction did you get?

Tracy: There was some good leadership that I inherited and some leadership that wanted to do things the old way. I held them accountable when they weren’t doing their job because all police officers deserve their leadership to be engaged. The higher up you go doesn’t mean the less you do. The higher up you go, the more you know.

People weren’t showing up, and I was going to lead by example. Once I got the right people in place, I was able to back off and just take phone calls, but for my first year, I was on the scene. The rank and file loved it because some of the leaders who are no longer here were going to try to do business as usual.

Wexler: You’re showing up at each scene, but it also sounds like you’re thinking about how to prevent the next shooting. Is that right?

Tracy: Yes. I ask, Are we following the post-shooting retaliatory plan? Is my real-time crime center giving out immediate information on who my victim is? And if I can’t make the scene, to this day I get a call from the duty captain at the scene, telling me what’s going on and what plan is in place.

Wexler: PERF did an evaluation of the Wilmington Homicide Unit and presented you with the findings. Wilmington was also one of the cities we examined in an analysis we did with the Bureau of Justice Assistance of homicide units around the country. How are outside evaluations like that helpful?

Tracy: They are absolutely helpful. The amount of homework that the detectives and leadership had to do to answer PERF’s questions for the review were basically a self-assessment because it showed them where the gaps were. We can have the greatest policy in the world, but sometimes we move away from it, so the review brought them back to center. Our clearance rates have since improved dramatically, and so have our relations with the community.

A good thing about both Wilmington and St. Louis is that many consultants have come in and done studies that I can benefit from. I learned from one report that during a 10-hour day, officers in Wilmington were spending 40 percent of their time waiting for a call to service. We changed the whole mindset to make sure officers could get out of their cars and be directed where the community wants them during those four hours.

Wexler: What did you do to strengthen your relationship with the community? In Wilmington, you were a white guy coming into a predominantly African-American community. How did you overcome the outsider perspective?

Tracy: Transparency. You could have the best strategies in the world, but you’re not going to have long-term success unless you have the community coming along and understanding.

When I started, the community policing unit had been disbanded to make them an enforcement unit. Officers weren’t being kept in the same areas, so they couldn’t be accountable for the conditions and getting to know the community. We had stopped going to community meetings. We used to make sure that all the specialized units were made whole at the expense of patrol. I flipped the model and kept patrol at full strength so they could do more proactive things. If the front end is taken care of, there is less crime for these investigators and special units on the back end.

I tried to get to a community meeting almost every single night in my first months there. I went to town halls and spoke about everything we’re talking about now and how we’re going to get there.

Because we were more visible, the community felt like there were more cops, and they began to feel safer and build trust. Officers stayed in the same areas, so when something happened, we weren’t meeting people for the first time in a crisis. Relationships had already been established. Detectives were getting more cooperation and clearance rates went up. 

Wexler: Now you have taken on the job as the first outside police chief for St. Louis. What lessons did you learn in Wilmington that can make you a better chief in St. Louis?

Tracy: One of the mainstays is drawing in all of your criminal justice partners along with the community and elected officials, and working with all of them. I’ve gotten better and better at it. I had to learn from experience the need to get out there and create these relationships very quickly.

St. Louis, I know is going to be a huge challenge. I’m happy for the leadership I have here in Wilmington because I’ve trained them all to take my job. What better way to leave a legacy? I couldn’t be more proud of them. I want to replicate those things in St. Louis.

We’re all growing. And if you’re not learning and growing, then you need to get out of this job. I’m learning things each and every day. I learn a lot from my officers. I see them out in the street. You’ve got to be engaged. I think there are a lot of us still in this profession that really want to get the job done. I know a lot are leaving, but this is an opportunity to really make a difference coming out of what has happened in the last couple of years. And I want to be a part of that.


So Bob Tracy leaves one city significantly safer and demonstrates what is possible with hard work and determination. It turns out that his secret to success is showing up in the middle of the night when someone gets shot or murdered — expecting others to do the same. And asking: How do we prevent the next murder? That is how you change a culture and save lives at the same time.

And now he heads to St. Louis — as the first outside chief in one of the most violent cities in the country. During a time of considerable anguish in policing, Bob Tracy is a shining star and his leadership is inspiring.