People clapped when St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman entered the Humboldt High School auditorium Thursday to announce his pick for police chief.

They erupted into whoops and hollers when they saw who followed him: Assistant Chief Thomas Smith, a West Sider, a Humboldt alumnus, a 20-year veteran of the force.

"Not a surprise," Coleman said when he got to the microphone and made it official that Smith was his choice to lead the St. Paul Police Department for the next six years. "He is going to be one hell of a police chief for the city of St. Paul."

Politicians, community members, students and police who packed the auditorium clearly shared the sentiment.

"All I can say is, 'Wow,'" Smith, 51, said when he addressed the crowd. "I am so humbled."

He pledged to renew the department's commitment to public service and to build and enrich partnerships with neighbors, nonprofits and other groups. "We're going to do great things," he said.

Smith still needs the approval of the City Council, and he will likely get it, although the council probably won't vote on his confirmation for a few weeks.

Coleman said it was the most important choice he has had to make so far in his mayoral career. He also praised the other finalists for the job: Watch Cmdr. Todd Axtell and Senior Cmdrs. Colleen Luna and Bill Martinez.

City Council President Kathy Lantry likes Coleman's choice. "He has community support, officer support and political support," she said.

Current Chief John Harrington, who chose not to stay for another term, said Smith is a perfect hybrid for the job because he has been on the streets, done long-term investigations and understands the importance of education.

Harrington and Smith will discuss transition plans, but there isn't a definite date set for when Harrington will depart. His term expires June 30.

Harrington is a finalist for New Orleans police chief, and he expects to find out by Monday whether he gets the job.

Lots of community support

After his remarks, Smith said he would take the next few weeks to analyze where the department is and then look at selecting his management team. Despite an uncertain budget, he said he wouldn't cut "core services to citizens on the streets of St. Paul."

He said he also looks forward to sitting down with the St. Paul Police Federation and working to improve the relationship between management and the union.

Dave Titus, federation president, said the same thing. "The most important thing the new chief will do is appoint a good administrative team the rank-and-file respects," he said. "If we see a good change, then morale will be boosted."

Martha Elena Varela, executive director of the West Side Safe Neighborhood Council, said Smith has been very responsive to community needs over the years.

Nick Khaliq, a longtime community activist and president of the St. Paul chapter of the NAACP, said he has been impressed with Smith since he was a young officer in the Selby-Dale area.

"We always observed him acting at a high professional level, and the level of respect he had for folks he'd encounter was tremendous for a young officer," said Khaliq.

Smith joined the St. Paul department as an officer in 1989.

He has won numerous honors, including medals of valor and commendation, as well as four achievement awards. He has one disciplinary action in his file. In October 2000, he was suspended for three days for writing a memo about traffic-ticket quotas.

Smith has a bachelor's degree from Metropolitan State University and a master's from the University of St. Thomas.

He helps lead a mentor program for at-risk youth at Humboldt, and he told students Thursday that they will still see him in the halls.

Smith lives on the West Side with his wife and high school sweetheart, Catalina. They have three children, Thomas, 30, DeAna, 24, and Cassandra, 18.

Chris Havens • 612-673-4148