Image: Centennial Church/Walter Pritchard

Law enforcement, public safety and social services in the City of St, Louis were addressed in detail by respective leaders during a well-attended community forum April 1, at a northside church.

New St. Louis Police Chief Robert Tracy, Interim Public Safety Director Charles Coyle and Employment Connection CEO Sal Martinez voiced their visions and action plans to deal with crime during the “Stop the Violence” Town Hall Meeting that took place at Centennial Church in the Fountain Park neighborhood.

Youth carrying high powered guns, reckless driving, vehicle thefts and carjackings, slow 911 and Emergency Medical System (EMS) response times and ways to work toward preventing crime to help people become productive citizens, were among the many topics explored during the 2½ hour long meeting. The panel answered written questions for the audience of more than 100 people.

The audience was receptive to the speakers and took a wait and see attitude about progress moving forward to make the city safer and equitable for all citizens.

“It was good to have them here. We always need to have more conversations and open communications between public safety and the community,” said Emmett Coleman, 40. “The meeting here won’t make to much of a difference, but it depends on what we do when we follow up after this, the approach, the action.”

Coleman’s take on Police Chief Tracy, who was hired in January: “I like the fact that he’s from out of state and coming in with a fresh perspective and is not tied to any clicks and any current political beefs,” Coleman continued. “I’ll give him a fair chance and see how effective he is.” 

Tracy was the former police chief of Wilmington, Delaware before landing the top job in St. Louis. According to Mayor Tishaura O. Jones’s office, under Tracy’s leadership as Wilmington’s top cop, the city experienced a 56 percent drop in shootings and a 41 percent drop in homicides. He has also worked in the Group Violence Intervention initiative in New York City and as a Crime Control Strategist in Chicago. He is the first police chief hired from outside the department.

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From left: Charles Coyle, Interim Director of St. Louis Department of Public Safety; Robert Tracy, Chief of Police, St. Louis Police Department; and Sal Martinez, CEO of Employment Connection

Tracy said he has been welcomed “as an outsider coming in” as leader of the city’s 1,600-officer police force.

“Everybody is saying, ‘let’s get this to a better place, let’s get it right’,” he said. “We can get this place to a safer city. I see people with lots of confidence and hope; we’re going to build on that.”

Tracy said the dangerous reckless driving on city streets, too much of which is done by criminals who don’t want to get caught, that the department has a plan to deal with the problems.

“It’s going to take a while to change behavior. It has gotten kind of out of control,” he said. “When it comes to arrests and traffic stops, I always ask that we do it fairly, constitutionally and respectfully.

“And that’s the thing I’m always willing to do, drill into my officers. And 99.9 percent of the time they’re doing it.”

Interim Director of Public Safety, Charles Coyle, who spent 45 years as a member of the city’s fire department, including stints as Deputy Fire Chief and Fire Marshal, addressed the troubling bottleneck problems with the 911 emergency system.

In addition to upgrading software and equipment, Coyle said EMS and 911 dispatchers have been merged to deal with backed up calls. If a person calls for emergency services, the call will be directed to EMS or 911, whichever the need is. He added that more than 20 percent of 911 calls are non-emergencies.

“We’re pretty happy that it has been accomplished,” he said.

CEO Sal Martinez leads the Employment Connection, a nonprofit organization that breaks down barriers to self-sufficiency for individuals including the homeless, ex-offenders, U.S. veterans, high school dropouts, women on welfare, and at-risk youth.

“The work we do in the community is about violence prevention,” Martinez said. “One of the best ways to prevent crime is to give an individual an opportunity for a career, to support themselves, a family member. The endgame for us is self-sufficiency.”

Virtual or in-person work-readiness classes, Social Security’s Ticket to Work program to assist 18–64-year-olds receiving Supplemental Security Income or Social Security Disability Insurance find meaningful work, Solar Workforce Development promotes equity in the “Green” jobs workforce of the St. Louis region, A program for St. Louis County youth aged 16-24 who are not currently in school and various other enrichment opportunities.

Employment Connection partners with the City of St. Louis’ Health Department and Cure Violence Global to reduce gun violence in the Wells-Goodfellow/Hamilton Heights and Dutchtown neighborhoods in St. Louis.

The town hall was hosted by 84th District Missouri Representative Del Taylor. He said when he was running for office last year, he was frequently asked about how to reduce crime in the city. “I think it should be befitting that the topic should be to stop the violence,” said Taylor, adding that the town hall was more than the speakers sharing their vision but engaging the community – a partnership.

Host pastor, the Rev. Derrick L. Perkins of Centennial Church, called the meeting important in allowing citizens to gain insights and information about what is going on in the community.

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