In today’s Critical Issues Report, Chuck Wexler talks with Robert Tracy, Chief of Police in Wilmington, DE.  Wilmington has received national attention recently as the home of President-elect Joseph Biden.  

Chief Tracy spent most of his career serving in the NYPD, from 1984 to 2007, and after some time in the private sector, became Chief of Crime Control Strategies in the Chicago Police Department from 2011-2015. He was appointed chief in Wilmington in May 2017. He was featured in a previous Critical Issues report.  

Chief Robert J. Tracy

Chuck Wexler:  Bob, protecting the President-elect wasn’t in your job descriptionwas it? 

Chief Tracy:  No, it wasn’t.  It wasn’t on my radar. 

Wexler:  How many officers do you have? 

Chief Tracy:  320 sworn officers and about 80 civilians.  

Wexler:  You’ve done a really great job with crime and criminal investigations in Wilmington, but how do you handle this new thing of protecting the President-elect?  An NYPD or LAPD can handle just about anything, but you’re a medium-size city. 

Chief Tracy:  I think I’m pretty well positioned because I was with the NYPD for 23 years, and New York was an epicenter for learning how to deal with large crowds, protests, and other big events. And then I went to Chicago as the second-in-charge running crime control strategies. During my time there, we had the NATO protests in 2012, with thousands of individuals coming in.  We were on the global stage, learning how to deal with that volatile environment, and we did well. And then coming to Wilmington, which had been labeled “Murder Town USA,” and being able to make some good changes that reduced the violence. 

So now we have Joe Biden, who is from this area, and things started to build up in terms of what we needed to prepare for during the primary season, and after he won the nomination, and during the Democratic National Convention in AugustMilwaukee had about seven months to prepare for the DNC, but we only had about seven days to prepare when they decided to shift much of the convention to Wilmington because of COVID conditions, culminating in the Biden and Kamala Harris acceptance speeches. And now we just had the big outdoor victory speech here in Wilmington. 

Wexler:    I understand that you have a lot of great experience to draw upon from your time in New York and Chicago, but those departments have huge resources that you don’t have in Wilmington.  Can you tell me about the practical implications when you’re working on regular issues like crime and suddenly you’re working with the Secret Service on a national political convention? 

Chief Tracy:  Well, even in a city our size, we can easily have several thousand protesters descend on us at any moment. That happened to us in May following the death of George Floyd, as it did in many other cities. I’m fortunate to have a mayor who trusts the police chief. We have a plan for what we’re going to do, and the mayor trusts us to execute it.  

I needed to pull elected leaders together and get support for what we were doing, and then bring in state police, county police, and federal partners, including the FBI, ATF, DEA, and U.S. Marshals, who gave us assets. In New York City, if something big happened, I could just pull officers from the next precinct over and coalesce resources into a given area, without giving up the rest of the city. The Democratic National Convention was a challengebut I had mandatory recalls where everyone was working – plainclothes units and detectives, everyone was in uniform. And with our federal partners, the level of cooperation we saw was nothing short of spectacular.  

Wexler:    Let’s talk about the President-elect’s victory speech last Saturday.  It looked like there was an audience in a lot of cars.  How was that done, from a security standpoint?  

Chief Tracy:  It helped that we had had similar event back in August with the Democratic National Convention. But yes, the victory speech was a lot larger, and it was quite a logistical challenge to bring in vehicles while keeping the President-elect safe and keeping the event safe. Thousands of people came to our Riverfront area. For every guest whose car had to be vetted, I had 20 or 30 cars just trying to come see the event. We had to make sure we had relief points to get some people out, and then get cars to the Secret Service where they could vet the vehicles for safety.  

Fortunately, Wilmington is one of the foremost agencies on the East Coast with a drone program, so we had drones up in the air to help make sure we were keeping the area safe and we were maintaining situational awareness. We had to coordinate that with the Secret Service. Because of their trust in the Wilmington Police Department, they allowed us to do the things we needed to do to keep the surrounding area safe. 

I was so proud of my officers and the federal and state authorities, and how we coordinated to make this event a success, to the point where you can see Vice President Biden looking out over hundreds of cars.  

Wexler:   The night of the event, were you in a command center, or moving about? Where is the best place for you on the night of an event like that? 

Chief Tracy:  We set up a command post with all the video monitoring throughout the city and around the event, and we had drone feeds that gave us situational awareness to make everything work as smoothly as possible. In the beginning of the day, I moved around outside the site, checking our traffic posts and lining up our officers, and then I went to the command center, where we had multi-jurisdictional cooperation among state, federal, and local authorities. During the event, I made my way into the event area, so I could quickly resolve issues inside. We had a mini-command center within the federal protected area, and I could talk to our drone operators and say, “Let’s get a view of this certain area,” because I’m getting people backed up over here or other issues.  

Wexler:  Tell me more about the drones. What were you using them for? 

Chief Tracy:  We can see traffic conditions, we can get very close to areas that we think are critical where there might be threats, we can look at rooftops, at buildings, at vantage points from highways. Some of the drones have spotlights for dark areas, and we had heat sensors to pick up movement in very dark areas, because there are two rivers and swampy areas nearby. These capabilities are invaluable.  

Wexler:   Have you had opportunities to talk to Vice President Biden, and what are your impressions of him? 

Chief Tracy:  I met Joe Biden in my first couple months in Wilmington, in 2017, and I’ve met him and had conversations with him several times since then.  Some of my conversations I’d like to keep private, but I can say he is pro-law enforcement.  He is about fairness, and he truly cares about the community. He and his people have kept in touch to ask if there’s anything we need in this city to make sure we can fairly police and have crime reduction and community engagement.  My impression is that he’s going to serve the country well He’s definitely a man who will work on some of the things that are happening today. 

Wexler:  Is there any truth to the rumor that he’s going to make you Ambassador to Ireland? 

Chief Tracy:  (laughter)  I’m here to serve, Chuck.  I’m in a great place, working in a great city. I’m really proud of my great police officers. We were on a world stage, with everybody looking at us, and the Wilmington Police Department and our partners came through, and will continue to come through.  I have a job to do here, and I’ll try to make sure I’m up to any challenge.


The PERF Critical Issues Report is part of the Critical Issues in Policing project, supported by the Motorola Solutions Foundation.


PERF also is grateful to the Howard G. Buffett Foundation for supporting this work.