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3 external candidates among 4 finalists for St. Louis police chief

 (L-R): Interim Police Commissioner Michael Sack, Chief Larry Boone (Norfolk, Va.), Chief Robert Tracy (Wilmington, Del.) and Deputy Chief Melron Kelly (Columbia, S.C.) are finalists for St. Louis' next police chief.
Office of Mayor Tishaura Jones
The finalists to be the next chief of the St. Louis police department are, from left, interim St. Louis Chief Michael Sack; former Norfolk, Virginia, Chief Larry Boone; Wilmington, Delaware, Chief Robert Tracy, and Columbia, South Carolina, Deputy Chief Melron Kelly.

Three officers from outside the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department are in the running to take over as chief.

The four finalists, who were chosen with the help of the Boulware Group and the Center for Policing Equity, will appear at a community forum at 6 p.m. Tuesday at Vashon High School, 3035 Cass Ave. They are:

  • St. Louis Interim Chief Michael Sack.
  • Larry Boone, former chief of the Norfolk, Virginia, police department.
  • Robert Tracy, chief of the Wilmington, Delaware, police department.
  • Melron Kelly, deputy chief of the Columbia, South Carolina, police department.

“By bringing St. Louisans into the selection process, we are putting the public back in public safety,” Mayor Tishaura Jones said in a statement announcing the finalists. “I look forward to hearing more from each of the finalists about their vision to keep St. Louis safe for our families and visitors.”

The department has never had a chief from outside its ranks, and this is only the second search to include external candidates. The first, in 2017, resulted in former Chief John Hayden’selevation to the role.

Sack graduated from the police academy in 1994. Before being named interim chief earlier this year after Hayden’s retirement, he commanded the Bureau of Community Policing, which oversees the department’s patrol officers. He’d previously led Central Patrol, the Bureau of Professional Standards and the Bureau of Crimes Against Persons, which includes the homicide unit.

Sack was the head of the Bureau of Professional Standards in 2018 when the St. Louis Post-Dispatch first reported the existence of a so-called “exclusion list,” consisting of officers who would not be allowed to bring cases to Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner. Sack reportedly helped Gardner develop the list, an allegation he and Hayden denied.

Boone, a native of New Brunswick, New Jersey, has spent his entire law enforcement career with the Norfolk Police Department, joining it in 1989 and being promoted to chief in 2016. He retired in April, telling local media his goal had been to see the department through the pandemic. But in August, a local TV station reported that some officers in the department said Boone had essentially been made a scapegoat for the violence plaguing Norfolk, a city of 235,000.

Boone was also reportedly a candidate for the chief’s job in Cincinnati.

As deputy chief in Columbia, South Carolina, Kelly currently commands three bureaus, as well as overseeing the department’s public information and marketing departments. He has been with the department for 23 years.

Before arriving in Wilmington, Tracy held top-level positions in New York City and Chicago. He was an ally of Gerry McCarthy, a former Chicago 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 in 2017. "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' and move on to the private sector."

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.

Stops and starts

Hayden announced in September 2021 that he planned to retire in February. The five-month period was expected to give the city time to choose his replacement.

But Jones and then-personnel director Richard Frank clashed over how the search would be conducted. Jones hoped to use outside firms, while Frank wanted to keep the process in-house. Jones was also dissatisfied with the first set of finalists, both of whom were reported to be white men and members of the St. Louis department.

Frank left his position in December 2021, and Jones successfully pushed the Civil Service Commission to restart the search. In May, the city signed a contract with Boulware, a Chicago-based firm that has also helped with police chief searches in Detroit and Charlotte. The Regional Business Council covered the cost.

Using a national firm, Jones said, would help the city cast a wider net for finalists.

Hayden retired June 18 after more than 35 years with the department. Sack has been serving as interim chief since then.

The forum at Vashon will be the only town hall. Interim Public Safety Director Dan Isom, also a former police chief, will be the one to make the final selection.

He and Jones hope to have a chief picked by the end of the year.

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