Numbers are the name of the game for Wilmington Police Chief Robert Tracy, who is closing in on his second year with the city’s police department.
When he was brought in as an “outsider” in April 2017, as the 31st police chief, Tracy began racking up his own statistics: first chief to be hired outside the Department, highest paid in the city’s history—a $43,000 raise to be exact, taking the salary from $111,197 to $154,197 with a cap of $160,000 up from $117,073—and the first to insist that Wilmington get on board with a statistics-driven program known as CompStat.
The latter is being credited for another ranking for the chief, the first to crack the code in reducing Wilmington’s out-of-control crime rate—a fact he and his biggest champion, Mayor Mike Purzycki, are making sure gets as much publicity as the half-dozen headlines that have plagued the city since at least 2011. Headlines that, right from the start, Tracy pushed back against.
“This city has a lot to offer. I moved my family here and my kids go to school here; I wouldn’t have made that choice if I didn’t see the good—and the hope. I ride my bike, I walk my dog, my family engages with the community… Wilmington isn’t just where I work; it’s where my family and I live. Yes, it has its problems, but even the most challenged community can be a beautiful city and have a lot of heart. You can’t write off a city because 1 percent of the population is committing 67 percent of the crime.”
Sure, statements such as these shout PR sound bite, but telling people what they want to hear is not the chief’s style. Early on he made his purpose clear.
“I came to Wilmington to improve the quality of life and safety for its citizens. And that includes my family and me. That’s my personal investment. To the 99 percent not committing the crimes, we are here to protect you.”
“I moved my family here and my kids go to school here; I wouldn’t have made that choice if I didn’t see the good—and the hope,” says Tracy.//Photo by Joe Del Tufo
Armed with his well-worn CompStats playbook and intense determination, Tracy stood tall in the face of skepticism. He understood that he was the outsider and needed the officers’ support in getting to know the most susceptible neighborhoods and the most active perpetrators. His first order of business was to earn respect, make friends and understand the economic, education, racial and peer pressures being felt across these at-risk communities. Insights, he says, that “don’t come from sitting in your patrol car all day.”
Just as quickly, Tracy began meeting with civic organizations, walking through the most “challenged” neighborhoods, and continuing to get his officers out of patrol cars and onto the sidewalks in a non-threatening way.
One of his early encounters was with Bishop Lane, pastor at Christian Growth Ministries. The two had an appointment to meet—initiated by Lane who wanted to know exactly how the community was going to come together to fight back against the “violent crime taking a toll” on Wilmington. But on the way home one night, he ran into the chief returning from the gym. There had been a shooting in his neighborhood and the chief’s car was blocking Lane’s driveway. Apparently, he’d spontaneously come to discuss the crime situation.
“My biggest concern was how we were going to partner. How could the community be better watchdogs,” said Lane, who works with at-risk males to promote education and employment resources. “We live here and know what goes on. I told him we needed officers on the streets, being visible but also getting to know the youth and what they’re dealing with. There’s not a lot for youth to do, recreation or education and job wise.”
The chief agreed 100 percent.
“Most people don’t wake up and decide they’re going to become a criminal or a murderer,” says Tracy. “They get to that point because they don’t have any options—or don’t know the options. We need to focus on the why if we want to make an impact on the numbers. We need to send a message that we want to, and will, help, but the guns have to come down. You come to us, and we will prioritize your group and get you the social services you need.”
This is the kind of thinking community activist Bebe Coker has been advocating for years. the former executive director of the Center for American Heritage and volunteer for the Metropolitan Wilmington Urban League, Coker has been outspoken about getting to the root of the city’s violence.
Before the department transitioned from Cummings to Tracy, Coker made it clear that Wilmington’s escalating crime—and gun violence, in particular—was everyone’s fault and everyone’s responsibility.
“It’s the stuff that happens before the crime,” says Coker. “It amazes me how people think that this—crime, drugs, guns—just popped up. Everyone’s trying to blame it on one thing, but it’s so much. I have been saying for years, we need to sit down and find a way to work together to better define where energy should go to fix things.”
Coker was among the first to get in front of the new chief to share her feelings and push an agenda that would unite people and resources. She was pleasantly surprised to learn that Tracy’s data-driven tactics didn’t exclude the factors she knew where plaguing the city’s at-risk population, most significantly, lack of opportunity, education, jobs, mental healthcare access, and family stability.
“The community is responsible for what happens to our youth. If they don’t have money, are having trouble staying in school or finding work, what else are they going to do? We need to work together on building a support system that centers on mentorships, access to services, GED and vocational training. We’ve seen what happens when you do nothing. It’s going to take more than a new police chief to fix it.”
This mindset played a factor in how Mayor Mike Purzycki went about selecting his final candidate for the position back in 2017.
Even before he took up residence in his well-appointed, memorabilia- and family photo-filled office on Walnut Street, Tracy had sold city officials on intelligence-led policing and its ability to boost crime prevention by connecting the dots between where the crimes are happening, what type of crimes they are, and using that information to predict—and prevent—future incidents.
Looking back, Purzycki was struck by Tracy’s confidence. “He understood the crisis that we were in and firmly believed he could make a difference.”
Trust was a recurring theme in their conversations and the mayor liked the blueprint presented to him. He asked people to trust him to make the right hire, but was aware, without anyone reminding him, that it was a risk bringing someone in from outside the department. He also knew the city was losing businesses and residents, and along with their frustrations, police department morale was low.
“Wilmington has tried every strategy that’s worked all around the country; short-term fixes that didn’t stand up,” says Purzycki. “It was time for a change.”
Wilmington Police Chief Robert Tracy.//photo by Joe Del Tufo
Part of that change, added the mayor, was unity among the city’s 50-plus civic organizations. Echoing Coker’s sentiments, he laid some of the fault on the city agencies’ inability to mobilize in the same way that many neighborhood associations had or were trying to.
“The tragedy,” he says, “is that we turn to our police to eliminate crime as if they can prevent drug addiction, poverty, truancy, lack of jobs, ease of getting a gun. We have to own these issues and spread the gospel that if we don’t get connected—social services, corrections, schools—nothing will move us away from the headlines.”
Flipping back through the news cycle, there was no sugarcoating what life in Wilmington looked like—to residents and the rest of the country:
“Murder Town, USA” (Newsweek, 2014); “Wilmington ranked as 5th most dangerous city*” (Delaware Business Now, 2017); “Growing up under fire: Wilmington, Delaware, leads U.S. in teen shootings” (USA Today, 2017); and “Wilmington: most dangerous place in America for youth” (DelawareOnline.com, 2017). They’re headlines that would make any homebuyer, real estate investor or potential new business or corporate headquarter cringe—and did.
Tracy stayed his course, meeting with individuals and organizations on both sides of the law, encouraging cooperation and unity. This meant civic leaders and gang leaders. To both groups his message was: “We are not going to accept this carnage in the community.” The more relationships he fostered, the more he began to learn about each neighborhood’s unique personality and challenges. The same for his officers, who he took out of their patrol cars and onto the sidewalks to actively engage in the neighborhoods they were protecting.
“These communities want to be heard and the department needs to be held accountable,” urged Tracy early on. “Our first job is to listen to everybody in the community, including the people committing the crimes, those having knowledge of who is and those unwilling to talk. Look at everything that’s happening across the country with arrests and abuse. We can’t have those issues and expect to get information that might help solve a crime. We can’t get in front of youth and convince them to stay away from gangs, to stay in school, get job training, find a better way, if we haven’t earned their trust. We do that by showing them respect, finding out their backstories, what their challenges are and what led them on a path of committing crimes.”
Tracy wants his officers out of patrol cars and to engage with the citizens they work to protect.// photo by Joe Del Tufo
That vision is shared by those already working in the community.
“Vibrant cities come down to two things: a thriving economy and a low crime rate. Any reference to violence, anywhere in Wilmington, has an impact on new and existing businesses,” says Marty Hageman of Downtown Visions, a private, nonprofit organization that manages the Business Improvement District.
A former police officer, Hageman is the mastermind behind an ambassador program implemented as a complementary crime deterrent. Working in collaboration with the police department, the program calls upon uniformed, radio-equipped and paid individuals to report suspected or actual criminal activity to the department in real-time. Creating an alliance with the new chief was high priority.
Whereas some were skeptical about the proposed high-tech tactics, Hageman embraced Tracy’s “blend of traditional policing and modern technology” and almost immediately invited him to sit on the board of Downtown Visions.
“I felt that he would back his words up with action and hold himself as accountable as every officer in his department,” Hageman says. “He knows his officers need to work with the community on honest and consistent information exchange. We can’t hide from the problem, so he’s challenging the community to accept that they are part of the problems.”
“The chief didn’t bring these issues with him,” reminds Coker. “They started a long time ago.”
Looking back on those first six months of Tracy’s assimilation into the police department, things were pretty bleak.
In his first month on the job, the number of deaths caused by guns tied all of 2013, the year that broke records and led to the Newsweek article. By the end of his first year, the numbers were still proving the headlines right: A story in The News Journal declared that 2017 ended as Wilmington’s worst year ever for gun violence with 197 people shot, 32 fatally; and a general increase in shootings of more than 35 percent in 2017 over the prior year; and an increase in homicides, including non-gun crimes, of 25 percent.
These were not the stats the mayor, or Tracy, was going for.
Now, nearly two years after joining the department, Tracy finally has some breathing room. In early May, the chief’s data-driven tactics earned him—and Wilmington—the best crime statistics the city has seen in more than a decade: a decrease of 22 percent in violent crime, with a reduction in homicides down by 63 percent, and shooting incidents down by 61 percent. By the end of June, numbers were down from the same time as last year, with overall crime numbers down nine percent as well.
“This police department was willing to hear me out even though this data-driven approach challenged norms for a lot of officers who were used to a different type of culture,” he says.
“People are used to a certain way of doing things,” says Tracy. “I didn’t have any favors to repay. It was an advantage. I wasn’t beholden to any relationships that might have different, or opposing, agendas. I did what I knew: visibility, accountability and technology.”
Both the chief and the mayor talk about the changes in similar terms: Cops are out, interacting, not just sitting in cars. They’re building relationships and conveying an understanding that officers can’t just get to know the neighborhoods and residents when they need information. We need to be genuine. Both say it’s working, and that because of the positive results department morale is up.
“You can’t change your reputation overnight,” says Purzycki. “Our past echoes in the back of people’s minds. We have to create a sense of comfort and find ways to get the positive stories into the news cycle. Not just crime, but the businesses that are coming in or expanding. We aren’t going to make up for DuPont’s absence, but we can become more attractive to young people and to contemporary companies in tech or other innovation-driven industries that thrive in diverse, urban settings. We need to energize the job market, get construction going again. If you have a hammer in your hands all day, you’re going to be tired at night. Getting more people working, soon, is our long-term strategy. What I know today is that I couldn’t have picked a better chief for our city.”
Tracy, however, defers to his officers. “If they hadn’t embraced this new methodology, who knows where we would be,” he says. “We have a lot more work to do. When I can look back and see sustainable success, then I’ll know I did what I came to do.”