Tuesday, 20 February 2024 09:01

St. Louis Police Chief Receives a Third of His Pay From a Local Foundation, Raising Concerns of Divided Loyalties

Robert Tracy’s appointment as St. Louis’ police chief came with a sweetener: In addition to a $175,000 annual salary from the city, a nonprofit organization made up of local business leaders pays him $100,000 a year more.

The arrangement raised some questions at the time about whether the St. Louis Police Foundation’s money would influence Tracy’s approach to policing in a city with one of the nation’s highest rates of violent crime.

Thirteen months after Tracy took charge, those questions remain largely unanswered.

Megan Green, president of the board of aldermen and the city’s second-highest ranking official, said that while Tracy is generally responsive to the board, aldermen need more information about the financial relationship between the foundation and the Police Department and will now ask for it.

“I think we don’t know the exact extent to which he collaborates with the foundation or they have his ears,” Green said. “The public deserves to understand exactly, even beyond salary, how much money the police foundation is investing in the Police Department.”

Sharon Tyus, a longtime alderwoman who represents some north side neighborhoods most affected by crime, questioned whether Tracy’s arrangement with the foundation is legal.

“Who else can pay the chief?” she asked. “Can the criminals get together and pay the chief?”

Since it was founded in 2007, the foundation has given the Police Department at least $20 million in support, including both cash donations and in-kind gifts of training, weapons, protective gear and technology.

But until Tracy’s hiring, it had never paid a public official; the deal with Tracy, policing experts say, is unheard of for a U.S. police chief. (It’s far more common for coaches at elite college athletic programs.)

Tracy, who previously was the chief of police in Wilmington, Delaware, was the first chief in the St. Louis department’s 214-year history to be selected from outside the department. Mayor Tishaura O. Jones announced his appointment after a nationwide search with help from a firm whose work was paid for by another St. Louis-area business group, the Regional Business Council. Jones has praised Tracy for the city’s reduction in reports of violent crime in his first year on the job, while Tracy has credited the work of the department’s officers, community support and his own crime reduction strategies.

Tracy and Jones did not respond to questions from ProPublica or requests for interviews. Nick Dunne, a spokesperson for Jones, said in an email that the mayor has been “continuously transparent” about the selection process and Tracy’s salary.

“It remains clear that Chief Tracy is a worthwhile investment in the safety of St. Louis residents,” Dunne said.

Tracy assumed his role just a few months after ProPublica published stories focusing on the growth of private police forces in St. Louis. Those stories revealed that wealthier neighborhoods paid private companies for additional police services provided by moonlighting city officers and high-ranking leaders.

After the stories’ publication, Jones said in a radio interview that she intended to make changes to the private policing system to eliminate the disparities. But Tracy’s appointment has only cemented the city’s pay-to-play policing environment; the promised overhaul has not taken place. In a recent interview with KSDK-TV, Tracy said he didn’t want to prevent his officers from earning additional money in second jobs.

Experts in policing and public administration criticized private funding of Tracy’s salary. They said the foundation’s money threatens to divide Tracy’s civic loyalties or at least create the impression that he’s beholden to wealthy donors.

“When you have what could be perceived as a very high-level pay-to-play scheme, where certain businesses and entities have not just the chief’s phone number but literally sign more than a third of his paycheck, that’s just a bad look,” said Seth Stoughton, a professor at the University of South Carolina’s law school who has studied private policing.

Money from police foundations is used in a number of cities and in a variety of ways, from funding officer appreciation days to providing helicopters. They bridge budget gaps and provide resources that might otherwise be unavailable because of public funding limitations. Their supporters say they enhance what police can do and can foster partnerships between the community and the police.

But, Stoughton said, that kind of spending is “significantly different from giving a police chief a private stipend, particularly one that constitutes a substantial portion of his public salary. That’s weird.”

Justin Marlowe, a research professor at University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy and the director for the school’s Center for Municipal Finance, said it was clear “something is wrong with the way St. Louis is budgeting for policing.” If it was important to pay the chief $100,000 more, he said, “then you find a way to do that through the budget process. And then that way it’s very clear where the accountability is and clear what the performance expectations are.”

Marlowe noted that public officials are expected to recuse themselves from votes or actions in which they have a financial interest to avoid even the appearance of a conflict of interest. While taxpayers and the foundation might share objectives, “What we’re worried about is, What if there’s not alignment?”

In public statements to the media, Tracy has said he is not beholden to the foundation. The foundation’s chairman, Doug Albrecht, has told reporters that the foundation’s only condition for Tracy was that he remain engaged with the community and with officers.

But in his first year on the job, the foundation played a role in financing Tracy’s downtown crime strategy, contributing $860,000 for additional patrols in the business district, an area that had seen spikes in crime and raucous parties that turned violent. The foundation said this funding was at Tracy’s request. And Tracy told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch he chose downtown for foundation-funded patrols because it’s a popular gathering place. The program has been renewed this year.

In the email to ProPublica, Dunne, the mayor’s spokesperson, said the downtown patrols were “designed to incentivize officers to work secondary under the department itself, rather than private companies.”

Joe Vaccaro, the longtime chairman of the Board of Aldermen’s Public Safety Committee until he lost reelection last year, said that, if he were still on the board, he would ask why Tracy chose downtown for the foundation-funded patrols.

“Why are you picking downtown over my neighborhood?” he asked. “There are more killings in areas of north St. Louis. Why is downtown more important? Oh, wait a minute, the money comes from the group that’s paying you.”

Vaccaro’s successor as public safety chair, Bret Narayan, said the financial relationship between the foundation and Tracy “is something we should be taking a hard look at.” He said that though the board has not typically received line-item detail on foundation gifts to the department, some aldermen have been discussing legislation that would require the department to provide that.

In an interview, the foundation’s president and executive director, Michelle Craig, said that its relationship with Tracy is substantially the same as with his two predecessors — though neither of them received foundation money. She said board members “do not have any more access than anyone else who would call the chief’s office and make an appointment.”

Tracy’s predecessor, John Hayden, who served as police chief for 4 1/2 years until his retirement in June 2022, said the foundation did not try to influence his decisions. He said the department would sometimes ask the foundation to buy equipment instead of waiting for the next year’s city budget allocation. He said that when the department said it needed bulletproof helmets, the foundation bought them, citing an incident where an officer had been shot.

Hayden said he wished that he’d had the opportunity to try to negotiate a higher salary than the $153,000 he made in his last full year. But he said he would have preferred to be paid by the city.

“I think then the citizens would be more comfortable that I wasn’t beholden to somebody,” he said.

Lt. Col. Michael Sack, who served as interim chief for about six months in 2022 and was one of four finalists for the chief’s job, said in a federal lawsuit against the city that he would have turned down the extra pay from the foundation so St. Louis would not have a chief “who has conflicts of interest.” (Sack says he was wrongly rejected for the job; the city says that the lawsuit has no merit and has asked a federal judge to dismiss it.)

St. Louis does not appear to have a clear need for private funding of its chief. The department’s budget this year is $189 million and, because it is about 300 officers short of its authorized strength of 1,215, it has not spent all the money the city has made available. Last year, the department was more than $12 million under budget.

The private pay for Tracy is part of a broader pattern where St. Louis-area business leaders, many of whom live and work outside the city, have quietly tried to influence police operations because of concerns about crime’s impact on the regional economy.

Albrecht, the foundation chairman lives in Ladue, an affluent suburb 12 miles west of St. Louis known for sprawling estates and private golf clubs. That’s also where his venture capital and private equity firm, Bodley Group, is based. The foundation’s mailing address is his office. Albrecht didn’t respond to requests for comment.

At the time of Tracy’s hiring, Albrecht said the group learned during the search that the process was limited by the low pay for the position. The city charter requires that the police and fire chief be paid equally. Fire Chief Dennis Jenkerson made $157,423 in 2022. He was paid $175,000 in 2023 after Tracy was hired.

Jenkerson said in a brief interview that he was “in the process of working on that issue” and that “parity is parity.” He said he did not want to comment on what he thought about Tracy’s foundation pay.

St. Louis ranks at the lower end for how it pays its chief — at least before Tracy. A survey by the Police Executive Research Forum found that, in 2021, the average salary for chiefs in the 38 largest U.S. police departments was $232,380.

The additional pay for the chief’s job was never part of publicly available information about it. And it’s not clear if the city considered paying the chief a higher salary, even if it meant paying the fire chief more. Green said she didn’t know if such a proposal was taken to the Board of Aldermen before she was elected its president in November 2022.

Her predecessor, Lewis Reed, resigned and is in federal prison on a bribery conviction.

Records the foundation provided to John Chasnoff, a local activist who has pressed for transparency over the city’s policing, show that its board members were discussing a plan to contribute to the next chief’s salary at least three months before Tracy’s selection. An email to board members from Albrecht said the city’s maximum salary of $175,000 “will not allow us to acquire the highest level of talent for this position.”

Albrecht wrote that to secure the contract of up to $100,000 with the new chief, the foundation would work directly with the search firm the city used and, ultimately, with the candidate. “The city would not be involved,” he wrote.

In an email to St. Louis Police Foundation members, its chairman, Doug Albrecht, discusses a pay package for the new city police chief. Credit: Obtained by ProPublica

Minutes from a foundation board retreat in September 2022 indicate members agreed that this financial support was crucial to attract the most qualified candidate, even if they had no control over the process or the eventual appointee.

Minutes from a St. Louis Police Foundation retreat Credit: Obtained by ProPublica

Tracy insisted in a KMOV-TV interview that he was not beholden to the foundation and that his integrity was intact because “that was a deal with the city, and not a deal to me personally.”

But that appears to not be true. A contract released by the foundation — after pressure from Chasnoff — shows that it was signed by Tracy and Albrecht.

Besides salary, the contract requires Tracy to conduct a series of outreach efforts, including town hall meetings with department staff, regular communications and updates to the community by a blog or other means, and annual meetings with leaders in each of the city’s 14 wards.

The agreement runs for three years or unless Tracy is fired by the city or the foundation has probable cause that he has committed misconduct or failed to uphold the agreement.

Craig said the foundation was pleased with Tracy’s performance.

“I’m not in the media, so I don’t know the struggles of getting his attention,” she said, “but to us it appears he’s in a lot of places in the community, and that’s what he’s supposed to be doing.”