Debora Kinsel was working at the Boys and Girls Club on St. Paul’s West Side a few years ago when a 10-year-old girl went missing after her ride apparently didn’t show up.
“[She] just kind of disappeared, and nobody could find [her],” Kinsel recalled recently.
It was evening. Kinsel phoned the girl’s softball coach, Catalina Adamez-Smith, who is married to St. Paul Police Chief Thomas Smith. When Kinsel drove about a mile north to the spot where the girl was rumored to have taken the bus, Smith was already there in his street clothes.
“He showed up there, the same place I was, and we found this missing kid,” Kinsel said. “He just left his home, you know?”
Smith, 57, retires Tuesday after serving nearly 27 years at the department—six of those as the chief. Community members and activists praise him for being accessible and going the extra mile, but his one term as the city’s top cop had its share of controversy.
Under Smith’s tenure, the department’s crime lab came under severe criticism for drug testing protocols that had been in place before him, a slew of clergy sex abuse cases raised questions about whether investigators were being aggressive enough and most recently, activists scrutinizing police use of force compelled major policy changes.
“As a chief … you can just never guess what’s going to come your way,” Smith said in a recent interview.
Smith’s last days on the job proved him right: Two young girls were allegedly abducted and assaulted in unrelated incidents last week, and his officers on Monday shot and killed a man suspected of assaulting a woman and refusing to obey police commands.
In an interview conducted long before those incidents, Smith said such cases, particularly officer-involved shootings, are the biggest challenges facing all chiefs.
“It’s difficult for us, when, by law, I can’t say anything,” Smith said. “How much do you release? Do you release it right away?”
Smith has his confidants in the city and community, but admitted that he got upset when he couldn’t address rumors because of pending investigations and legal protections.
“I’m human,” he said. “I get angry. I want to talk. I can’t talk.”
‘He gained our trust’
Those privy to the chief’s concerns praise him for reaching out to community leaders, sometimes within minutes of an officer-involved shooting and other high-profile cases.
“How do we keep St. Paul from exploding?” asked longtime activist Tyrone Terrill. “And sometimes it takes all of us to do that. He’s always been very good about communicating what we need to do.”
Terrill and Jeff Martin, president of the St. Paul chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, are among the chief’s community consults.
Martin was part of behind-the-scenes discussions when officers arrested, kicked and pepper-sprayed Eric Hightower in 2012, and when Christopher Lollie was arrested in the skyway in 2014 for refusing to divulge his identity to police.
Both arrests were filmed, posted on YouTube and raised concerns about police use of force. Hightower and Lollie are both black.
“Basically, [Smith] had gained our trust, and said he would do what was within his power” for the investigations, Martin said. “I just felt like he had established and earned our trust, and he didn’t take advantage of that or take it for granted.”
There were disagreements, however. When police fatally shot Marcus Golden last year after he drove his car at them, Martin received a call from the chief’s office.
Martin, who once served as Golden’s attorney and knew his family well, repeatedly dogged Smith for more information.
The chief had the same answer each time: No.
“If you don’t push the envelope, I don’t think you’re as effective has you could be,” Martin said of his role as an activist. “[Smith] has his job and his role, and I think he did the best he could. Do I agree with that personally? No? Do I agree with that legally? Yeah.”
No St. Paul officers were criminally charged in the Hightower, Lollie or Golden cases. Officer Matt Gorans was fired for the Hightower case, but later reinstated by a state arbitrator. Officer Jesse Zilge was disciplined for his role in the Hightower arrest.
For Terrill, trust was built through Smith’s consistent demeanor and action throughout his career. After Smith joined the force in 1989, he worked as a beat cop in the Selby-Dale area, then rife with prostitution, crime and the influence of Chicago gangsters.
People called him “Smitty.”
“Amazing rapport then, amazing rapport now,” Terrill said of Smith’s relationship with the community.
Smith said building those relationships is his proudest accomplishment. He plans to maintain that work in his retirement by staying involved in the city’s ambassador program that connects with at-risk youth, and by continuing to serve as a mentor at his alma mater, Humboldt High School.
The next three months will be dedicated to time with his wife, three children and three granddaughters, some of that at a cabin Up North catching sunfish.
Smith declined to speak in detail about his next step, but said he had “a lot of options on the table.”
“I think there’s still some things I can offer,” he said. “The nice thing is I can kind of pick and choose.”