They say that St. Paul Police Chief Thomas Smith hasn’t changed much since he first started working the Selby Avenue beat as a rookie officer in the late 1980s.
While he was on patrol, Smith would stop to chat with young people. His passion for engaging with the community, especially youth, stayed with him even when he became the city’s top cop, community leaders say.
On Friday, Smith, 57, announced that he will step down as chief next spring, finishing out a six-year term that saw him champion community policing initiatives and striving to connect his department with the city’s diverse neighborhoods.
In typical low-key fashion, Smith made the announcement in a news release Friday. A department spokesman said he was out of town and unavailable for comment. He will leave sometime between April and June.
“After more than 33 years in public service, it is time to look at the next chapter of my life,” Smith said in a statement. “I am not sure what will come next, but I look forward to new opportunities in public or community service.”
In the meantime, he said he planned to spend retirement traveling and enjoying time with his family.
In an interview, Mayor Chris Coleman said Smith’s leadership had made the police department “a national model on how you build working relationships in the police department with your residents,” citing efforts to connect with the Somali, Hmong and Karen immigrant communities.
“Crime rates can fluctuate … [but] what doesn’t go up and down is the trust that you build in the community,” Coleman said. “And the trust that he built, and the relationships that he’s built that have extended down into other members of his department — those things are lasting.”
Smith paid special attention to programs for at-risk youth such as the Violence Intervention and Prevention project, geared to help troubled young people make use of social services rather than join gangs. The police department also has partnered with city and community groups to hire youth ambassadors to interact with young people on the streets and steer them from violence.
Coleman said that he hoped Smith’s successor will continue his legacy. Before the end of the year, the mayor plans to announce details on the search to replace Smith.
Smith was appointed by Coleman in June 2010 as the city’s 40th chief. He joined the department as an officer in 1989 and worked his way up from patrol to assistant chief under former Chief John Harrington, whom he succeeded.
Except for a surge in 2012, reports of serious crime in St. Paul up to the end of 2014 have been on the decline during Smith’s time as chief.
Smith, a West Sider and lifelong St. Paul resident, graduated from Metropolitan State University with a degree in public relations and earned his master’s degree in education and leadership at the University of St. Thomas.
Former City Council Member Debbie Montgomery, who has been a mentor to Smith since they worked together in the police department, called Smith’s retirement a great loss for the city. She said he was a sincere and committed person who did not waver in his principles.
“He just had a feel and a knowledge of this city and the flavor of issues that were going on,” Montgomery said.
Billy Collins, former executive director of the St. Paul YWCA, has known Smith for decades and partnered with the police on several projects. The chief, he said, has been “a real strong supporter of the community.”
Jeff Martin, head of the St. Paul branch of the NAACP, said Friday that Smith was a “strong advocate for the community.”
“I have great respect for Chief Smith,” Martin said. “I think he’s done an excellent job. … He’s tried some things that forged relationships that were risky in his role as chief.”
Smith met with black community leaders in the wake of high profile incidents, such as the downtown skyway arrest and use of a stun gun last year on a black man. Video of the incident drew widespread attention.
Smith also led the St. Paul police at a time when the department faced mounting criticism for its use of deadly force. During his tenure, 10 men — mostly people of color — were shot and killed by St. Paul police, more than any other law enforcement agency in the state. Three of those men were killed this year.
The officer-involved shootings have led to protests and calls among community advocates for greater scrutiny of officer conduct and changes in how the police review the use of force.
In a previous interview, Smith attributed the spike in fatal encounters with his officers to several factors: more guns on the street and more police interactions with those with mental illness or under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
“We believe Tom Smith is a good man. He has served the city during what have been extremely tough times for law enforcement,” said Christopher Wachtler, attorney for the St. Paul Police Federation union, in a statement.
But Wachtler also said Smith could have been “more outspoken in support of his officers following certain high-profile incidents,” and that union officials were disappointed he didn’t challenge the mayor to offer a competitive wage to St. Paul officers.
Union officials have said the department, which began contract negotiations in September, is among the lower-paid police departments in the Twin Cities.