Coleman announces pick for new St. Paul police chiefby Tim Nelson, Minnesota Public Radio
St. Paul, Minn. — A 21-year-veteran of the St. Paul police force has been named to head the city's police department.
Tom Smith is set to take over the 600-officer department by the end of June. He's the first head of the department to come up through the ranks during what's called the "community policing" era.
Smith, 51 is the son of a lunch lady and a mechanic. He grew up on the West Side, in the heart of St. Paul's Latino community. He started his career in the Summit-University neighborhood, the city's historic black community.
He's recently been an assistant coach for the girls softball team on the West Side.
But he's also traveled to Britain to consult with authorities there about relations with Somali refugees, and he studied counter terrorism in the Middle East.
St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman says that breadth of experience was a key factor when he decided to name Smith as police chief. Smith topped a list of four finalists, all of them from inside the department.
Coleman announced his pick in the auditorium at Humboldt High School, where even as an assistant police chief, Smith has helped run a mentoring program for 50 students.
"He's had every position in the department. He's done every dangerous assignment that you can have. He'd led men and women into battle and he's done it with distinction," Coleman said. "But more than that, he's a community member. He's never afraid to volunteer to help kids here at Humboldt. To work in the community, to do whatever it is he needs to do."
Smith promised to keep up that work as he took office.
"I think the main thing is going to be community partnership, collaborations. I think that's going to be just critical for me as a new chief, especially in tough fiscal times," Smith said. "I think we have a defined success in working with many non profits and other organizations, that I want to enhance."
Smith's supporters say that's what got him his new job. He was among the first generation of police officers to begin their careers in the 1990s, the era of community policing.
That philosophy focuses on improving police and community relations as a crime fighting tool. It followed an era of professionalization that made police forces into more paramilitary organizations after World War II.
Darryl Spence, a founding member of the God Squad, a group of St. Paul community organizers who have been on the civilian side of community policing, says Smith embodies that style, and the successes it's had.
"This is a cop that's been brought up, raised in the community policing model. If you look around this room, so much diversity. So much community. People who do what I do, people who work with young folks, hang out with the young folks," Spence said. "I was nobody until I met Tom Smith, in a weed-and-seed meeting some 18, 19 years ago, sitting there trying to figure out how we could better serve the youth of our community."
Admirers and rivals alike say Smith will need that kind of support.
A series of budget crises has put a financial pinch on state aid to St. Paul and other cities.
Relations between police administration and the rank and file officers union have also been contentious lately, and Smith was part of a dispute with the union over whether the department was using a ticket quota to measure officers job performance. Smith was reprimanded for that matter, the only discipline he's ever received on the job.
He's got other internal challenges ahead, too, as the department faces yet another cultural shift.
Bill Finney helped recruit Smith to the St. Paul force, and was chief for much of Smith's early career. He says the Baby Boom has moved out of the police ranks, and a new, better educated and suburban generation of officers is taking their place.
"If you take a suburban, new police officer, someone who's been raised in the suburbs, you bring them to the city," Finney said. "The challenge for the chief is to get them up to speed on what the realities are, what the culture's like for the tight, congested inner city and how to deliver that service in a matter in which the people of the city expect it to be delivered."
Outgoing Police Chief John Harrington says he's confident that Smith can meet the challenges.
"His work in the department for the last 20 years is really a testimony of how you prepare yourself to be chief, from walking the beat on Selby, making those connections with the community, solving problems, working some of the toughest beats," Harrington said. "He has been hardened. He has been tested and he has been found always to be up to the challenge."
Smith is expected to take office by the end of June, although he could take over sooner. Harrington is a finalist for police chief in New Orleans, and could be named to head that department as soon as Monday.
- All Things Considered, 04/29/2010, 5:20 p.m.