Challenge Alert

Lock in $15,000 with your donation by 6:30 p.m.

Donate now

Under new chief, Wilmington police aim to win back community’s trust

Listen 5:26
Wilmington Police Chief Robert Tracy (David Karas)

Wilmington Police Chief Robert Tracy (David Karas)

Violent crime is ebbing in Wilmington, Delaware. As of early March, murders are down 67 percent and shooting incidents are down 59 percent from two years ago citywide. Most of the victims and shooters come from a few predominantly African-American communities.

Wilmington’s violent crime rate was so disturbing for so long the city earned the moniker “Murder Town.” That’s something it’s working to shake off by having its police officers work within neighborhoods to build trust and help the “criminally prone” eschew misdeeds.

Robert Tracy became chief of police in this city of 70,000 people two years ago. The son of a veteran New York City homicide detective, he has helped New York and Chicago reduce crime by building bridges within communities.

Chief Tracy, tell me how this came about.

When I first became a police officer and came out of the police academy, I asked my father how can I be the best police officer that I can be. “Treat everyone as they would be a family member, when you see them as a police officer,” he said. And I even took that further — don’t even do it when you’re a police officer, do that when you’re out of uniform. Everybody should treat people like that, and I think we’d all be better off for it.

With the goal of public safety, you lean toward a progressive approach. And part of this is building trust between the police and communities and individuals. You are almost certainly a fan of the philosophy of the American criminologist David Kennedy, and Kennedy says if cops want the public’s trust, they must admit to decades of abuse. Now is that something that your force can do, wants to do, should be doing?

Well, I think we should recognize a lot of things that happened in the black community … You know, these things were legislated and the people that enforced them were law enforcement. That’s a narrative that’s been handed down to families that is real. The one thing we need to do is just recognize that happened and try to move forward and never to repeat those things. And that recognition, I think, with the community from law enforcement is that, yes, we need to do a better job. It’s incumbent on us to build the trust and to win back their trust, and that’s what we try to do each and every day.

Keep in mind in this city in particular had its share of excessive police force. One example was in the ’60s when Wilmington was under the watch of the National Guard following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. I know you’ve studied history. Does that come in handy in your job?

Oh, absolutely. You’ve got to know what happens in the past to make sure you don’t repeat it, and studying history and studying the city and seeing what happened in West Center City and the National Guard coming in here — we want to make sure that that never happens again. And we as police can have a lot to do with that. That’s why I  come back to the trust and working together with the community to reduce crime and not be an occupying force and working against each other. Although we might reduce crime, we lose the trust. And that’s just a Band-Aid. Let’s work together for long-term sustainable results.

How do you suggest a police department say it’s sorry or recognize past wrongs?

I do that at every meeting … I say I recognize the things that have been done in the past. I’ve met in Mother Africa Church with a couple of hundred people, talking about dismantling the New Jim Crow. We’ve talked about it, and we’ve had an honest dialogue and sometimes a tough dialogue. If you have the recognition, and you have a plan to go forward to make sure it doesn’t happen again — how to improve relations and having the conversations in an open forum. You allow people to have a Q and A, to get to know you and see the sincerity of your heart, of what you’re trying to do.

It sounds like it’s a conversation about identity, making clear what the identity of you and your force is about, and then identifying with each person in each of the neighborhoods.

And that feeds right into one of the philosophies that we bring in, methodologies keeping the same officer in the same area every time they work. That allows them to build a relationship with the community and go to every single community meeting that’s held in that community. Familiarity with the person — that’s where you start to see what the concerns are, you start to address their concerns and that starts to build the trust. Those are the things that help us overcome things. If I move my officers throughout the city, and each night they’re working in a different area, then these officers don’t get to know the good kids from the bad kids. They don’t get to know the community. They don’t get a chance to build the trust, and that’s really one of my main aims — community engagement and keeping the same officers in the same area for continuity to build those relationships.

Have you met with members of violence-prone groups? I know that was something that you were interested in.

We meet with them every day. What we try to do is identify who those individuals are to get them the help that they need and give them options out of crime. And the faith-based community … their influence and how much they can help can’t be overstated. I’ve met with almost all of the faith-based community either informally or formally and talked about some of these things that we need to do to reduce violence and work together. And we’re looking to put together a quarterly meeting of faith-based leaders with more enforcement that we can really get together collectively, of all denominations, and talk how we can do things and address this violence in the community. Actually move forward on some really positive things.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.