St. Paul Police Chief Tom Smith retired last week after serving the city for nearly 27 years — the last six as the top cop. He deserves praise for his community outreach, for being accessible to citizens and for being a tough, but fair, leader.
A St. Paul native who grew up on the West Side, Smith, 57, mentored young people and focused on youth programs throughout his law enforcement career. He regularly spent time with students from Humboldt High School — the same school he attended — and used his own story as a teen who sometimes got into trouble to show kids that they can grow up to accomplish great things.
As an officer and a department leader, he reached out to various communities and built relationships, making it easier to work with them in times of crisis. His ongoing conversations with Black Lives Matter demonstrators, for example, allowed the group to peacefully protest several times without major disruptions or arrests.
During Smith’s tenure as chief, the crime rate fell in St. Paul. However, there was a slight increase in violent crime in 2015, compared with 2014, and 2016 has had a difficult start. In April, nine people were shot in St. Paul in a four-day span, two fatally, leading the Police Department to dedicate more resources to combat gun violence.
Smith has managed the department through a number of controversies. He revamped the crime lab after public defenders’ inquiries disclosed flawed drug-testing practices. More recently, several lawsuits seeking millions of dollars were filed against the department over a sergeant’s discredited sex-trafficking case. Also during his term, questions have been raised about why St. Paul officers have fatally shot more people (10) than officers in other departments in the state. Despite those issues, even community leaders who have been critical of the police credit Smith with being an accessible public servant and a strong leader. Mayor Chris Coleman is likely to name Smith’s successor in June.
Smith will be remembered for taking community policing to heart and demonstrating the value of building relationships. The new chief and administration should build upon that work.